Western North Carolina Landslide Fatalities

Western North Carolina landslides have killed 6 people since 2003. These deaths should have prompted an urgent landslide awareness-prevention plan but North Carolina lawmakers have failed to act.

The absence of hazardous land regulation and risk disclosure is not unique to North Carolina. In fact many governments neglect to mandate standards that would prevent these tragedies.

Death by Landslide

When a landslide causes a fatality it is generally classified an accidental unavoidable event, but in one woman's death a coroner has concluded otherwise.

In January 2005 Eliza Kuttner was killed when a landslide covered her North Vancouver home. Sam Cooper, a reporter for the North Shore Outlook, has written extensively about the Kuttner landslide. In his December 2007 article,"Homeowners cry foul over DNV landslide risk report" Mr. Cooper discussed the ramifications of the district's geologic hazard report which found that 41 homes were at risk of lethal landslides.

Mr. Cooper looks at who was responsible for Eliza Kuttner's death in his July 23, 2008 article, "Fatal landslide ‘predictable and preventable’: B.C. Coroner". The following is copy of his report:

The Seymour-area landslide that killed Eliza Kuttner “was both predictable and preventable” yet “nothing was done” by government to deal with known safety problems, says the B.C. Coroner’s Report into Kuttner’s January 2005 death.

The report, obtained by The Outlook Tuesday, for the first time outlines the causes of the slide and reveals the post-mortem details of Kuttner’s death – essentially from suffocation and traumatic asphyxia when soaked soil from the backyard of 2175 Berkley Ave. slid from the crest of the steep Berkley-Riverside escarpment, unleashing a 90-metre mudslide that slammed through Kuttner’s Chapman Way home at the base, crushing and burying her.

Drawing far-reaching conclusions from the North Vancouver tragedy, Coroner Tom Pawlowski says similar events are possible across the North Shore and province as development pressure pushes lots onto ever steeper terrain. He makes 12 recommendations, urging governments to define standard levels of risk and coordinate to mitigate danger.

Pawlowski details the results of a report that Baumann Engineering completed for the B.C. Coroners Service, listing six specific causes of the January 19 landslide, including: the presence of development at the top and bottom of the 50-metre escarpment; presence of loose anthropogenic (man-influenced) fill at the crest of the escarpment that had been pushed over the slope since the area was first developed in the 1920s; the presence of a steep slope and gully immediately below 2175 Berkley Ave.; and the occurrence of an unusually heavy rainstorm that saturated escarpment soil.

In the report’s harshest criticism of District of North Vancouver officials, Pawlowski states the district commissioned two studies in 1980 following a series of dangerous slides on the Berkley-Riverside escarpment in 1979 that damaged houses at the base of the slope and backyards at the crest, but did not act on safety recommendations that would have affected properties at the crest of the slope, including 2175 Berkley Avenue.

“The (Klohn Leonoff) report recommended a number of risk reduction measures, such as the removal of fill and improvement of drainage for all properties, including those with low and very low risk ratings,” Pawlowski writes, noting that the Klohn Leonoff report warns "greatest danger from future sliding is to properties at the base of the slope."

“It appears that very little, if any, of this preventive work was carried out prior to the event which resulted in Ms. Kuttner’s death," Pawlowski states.

Quoting the Baumann report, Pawlowski writes “potential land-sliding in the Berkley-Riverside area was both predictable and preventable, but the perception that there was an unacceptable risk was not recognized by government or the residents of this area, and furthermore nothing was done to deal with this problem, which directly led to the occurrence of the fatal landslide.”

For lawyer Jay Straith, who has figured prominently in ongoing litigation stemming from the landslide, including representing the Perraults of 2175 Berkley Avenue, the report is a stinging rebuke of DNV officials.

“The Coroner’s Report shows the Klohn Leonoff report was right from the start but the politicians and bureaucrats did nothing about it,” Straith said in an interview Tuesday. “Mrs. Kuttner died as a result.”

Straith says the district’s case against the Perraults hinges on the argument that a fishpond in the backyard of 2175 Berkley Ave. caused the slide, but as Pawlowski makes no mention of the fishpond in listing causes for the slide, it bodes well for the Perraults.

Straith called Larry Perrault as soon as he read the report, and said Perrault was extremely relieved to hear the results.

“The coroner’s report will be before a court and for a judge to address,” Straith said.

The report does credit the district for “embarking on a number of landslide hazard management initiatives,” in the aftermath of the fatal slide.

District spokeswoman Jeanine Bratina said she could not respond to Straith’s comments relating to upcoming litigation. Asked about Pawlowski’s statement that the district did little if anything to act on the Klohn Leonoff recommendations, Bratina said, “It’s my understanding that many of the recommendations related to private property ... but the district did complete recommendations related to public property.”

Asked if the district will act on any of the 12 recommendations that Pawlowski makes in the report, Bratina said “The district has already done quite a lot (on recommendations) and been proactive.” Mayor Richard Walton was not available for comment.

In essence, the report concludes that lessons should be learned from the Kuttner tragedy, and provincial and municipal governments ought to standardize risk acceptance criteria and response, plus make geotechnical risk studies more widely accessible.

“There are numerous other escarpments in North Vancouver and the Lower Mainland where homes are located in similar circumstances in proximity to escarpments,” the report states. “Whenever development occurs on sufficiently steep ground, as was the case (with the Kuttner death) some degree of risk to human life and property will always be present ... even though such risk cannot be fully eliminated, it is possible to assess the level of risk and apply appropriate control measures.”

As of now in B.C., geotechnical consultants are obliged to keep risk studies confidential unless their clients authorize disclosure. Straith says the province is full of “time-bombs” like the Seymour-area slide and argues that full disclosure of geotechnical risks should be legislated. He believes Pawlowski’s recommendations are prodding government to do so.

“This is a strong recommendation for government to show some leadership.”