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Wyoming officials eye slow-moving landslide, evacuate residents

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Sat April 12, 2014
The 100-foot-deep landslide is moving so slowly that local officials have been able to see how ground cracks are emerging and growing by inches each day.
The 100-foot-deep landslide is moving so slowly that local officials have been able to see how ground cracks are emerging and growing by inches each day.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A slow landslide in Jackson, Wyoming, is tearing apart a house inch by inch
  • There's a 5% chance it could become like the violent landslide that hit Washington state
  • Officials are doing underground test to determine how big the landslide is
  • Some residents continue to live in their homes despite the evacuation order

(CNN) -- A slow-moving landslide the size of two football fields is steadily tearing apart a hilltop house from the inside and has prompted the evacuation of about 50 people and several businesses in the well-known skiing town of Jackson, Wyoming, officials said Saturday.

The slow movement, however, has only a 5% chance of becoming the sort of violent landslide that killed 36 people last month in rural Washington state, said Roxanne Robinson, Jackson assistant town manager.

"You know, I think that's on everybody's mind, but I think our slide is different because it's slow moving. Theirs was catastrophic, and ours has been slowly creeping down the hill," Robinson said Saturday.

The 100-foot-deep landslide is moving so slowly that local officials have been able to see how ground cracks are emerging and growing by inches each day the past week. Crews use binoculars to keep an eye on the hill while they stand at a fire truck across the road.

A mandatory evacuation order issued Thursday to 46 residential units in the landslide zone remained in place Saturday.

Authorities count about 57 residents in the landslide area, but only 48 people have reported to a Red Cross check-in station, Robinson said. The remainder are still residing in their homes or may be away from home, she said.

"There are people living there who have refused to leave. That's their choice because we can't forcibly remove them," Robinson said. "On one side of the (hillside) road, we did have a sinkhole develop, and it's not safe to dig it out and put a man in the hole.

On Saturday, about 43 people were escorted to their homes to remove personal items and check on the security of their belongings, according to a press release from the town of Jackson.

Emergency personnel will continue to escort residents to their home Sunday. Starting Monday, escorts back to residences will be by appointment only, according to the press release.

Red Cross personnel trained a dozen local people Saturday to staff a public shelter they plan to open Sunday evening.

For now, officials are doing testing extending 100 feet underground to determine how big of a threat the slide is and what they can do to limit its impact, Robinson said. The town has hired a geologist to examine the matter.

At a minimum, a house atop a hill is unlikely to be inhabitable again because its interior wooden floor is splitting into two, Robinson said. The driveway is cracked by a 6- to 12-inch upward fissure in the ground, she added.

"What really struck me is the wood flooring, which is separating," she said. "One half of the house looks like it's on side of the slide area and the other half is definitely at the crest of the slide.

"We did a media tour yesterday," she said Saturday, "and after we did that, the geologist said, 'You can't do that anymore. It's dangerous.'"

The slow landslide began March 4 when the event moved a town water pumphouse and broke a 16-inch water main, sending water gushing into a two-lane highway, Robinson said.

The landslide is occurring about a mile west of the town center, on a stretch of highway that's home to a Walgreens that opened with the new year, two restaurants and a liquor store -- all of which are closed for now, Robinson said.

The broken water main forced local officials to lay a two-inch water line up the steep hill's surface to connect to 46 residential units -- houses and apartments -- in the landslide zone, Robinson said.

On Saturday, crews installed water tanks on the hill as a fire prevention measure because the temporary two-inch water line isn't sufficient for potential firefighting, Robinson said.

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