CINCINNATI (AP) — When Tom Gerrein left for Mass on Easter Sunday in 2010, he had a flat backyard.
When he returned home, he did not.
Tom and his wife, Kathy, walked behind their house in Bellevue, Kentucky, and there it was. A landslide had cut their backyard in two, leaving a big crack through the middle and pulling the bottom half of the yard downhill.
Tom was shocked. He had heard of his neighbors having trouble with landslides but didn’t think his own property was in any danger. It turned out his yard was one of 39 caught up in a landslide, spread among several Bellevue streets.
One of Tom’s neighbors lost an add-on room and part of a garage — “They just sort of crumbled,” Tom said.
Another couple ended up walking away, abandoning their home and letting the bank foreclose.
Tom and Kathy had their house reappraised, and it lost more than 40 percent of its value, dropping from $113,000 before the landslide was discovered to $65,000 after.
“It’s like someone put a bomb in your yard,” Tom said.
Cincinnati’s hills are majestic, offering unparalleled views of sunrises, sunsets and the winding Ohio River. But all across this region, homeowners like the Gerreins are waking up to the realization that living among hills comes with risk.
The landslides on Columbia Parkway make news when they snarl rush-hour traffic for a day or two, but they represent just a fraction of the underlying problem and cost.
Much of that cost falls on homeowners, who sometimes don’t realize until it’s too late that landslides generally are not insured.
And, while landslides have always been a problem here, they’re a problem some scientists fear will get worse as climate change causes more weather extremes and dumps more rain onto hillsides in Ohio and Northern Kentucky.
There is no comprehensive landslide database, but University of Kentucky Geologist Matt Crawford has been mapping them for several years, and he has about 80,000 on his list so far.
That’s just in Kentucky.
Greater Cincinnati sits in part on what’s called the Kope shale formation, which breaks down easily and is highly prone to landslides.
There is also lakebed clay, a remnant of the glaciers, scattered throughout this region. Lakebed clay shrinks when it’s dry and swells when it gets wet. Too much precipitation adds weight and pressure. The hillsides get oversaturated and, eventually, there’s a landslide.
That geology alone would be enough, said Eric Russo, executive director of The Hillside Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting this region’s hills. But landslides here have been exacerbated by development, Russo said. The hills were stripped of trees and quarried for rock. People built houses and roads, and they didn’t always account for the hills and how they were changing and often damaging them.
“We’ve significantly altered the landscape over the last couple hundred years,” Russo said. “In a lot of cases, the hillsides were made weaker.”
And then there’s the rain. Pounding rain. Day after day. It floods the river and, in a way, it floods the hills.
In 1871, the first year the National Weather Service tracked annual precipitation, Cincinnati got 34.5 inches. There were ups and downs from year to year, but from then through 1999, Cincinnati averaged 39.5 inches of precipitation each year.
From 2000 through 2018, the average was 46.4 inches — a 17 percent increase.
Experts caution against using past rainfall amounts as a predictor of any one city’s specific future. Cincinnati could end up with record rainfall while there’s record drought just a few cities away, or vice versa. But, the University of Maryland made a climate-change map that predicts that in 2080, Cincinnati’s climate will feel most like today’s climate near Clarksdale, Mississippi.
That would mean a winter that is 12 degrees warmer on average and 74 percent wetter.
As the earth warms, it means the atmosphere can hold more water, which translates to more precipitation and more intense storms, said Greg Springer, chair of the department of geological sciences at Ohio University.
That combination — added to this area’s already steep terrain — means landslides will “almost certainly become more common,” Springer said.
Mayor John Cranley said there is no question climate change is already affecting landslides on Columbia Parkway, which have shut down the road repeatedly this year. The most obvious fix is a higher retaining wall, but that could cost close to $10 million.
The Hillside Trust doesn’t keep exact counts, but Russo, too, thinks landslides are increasing. These days, he gets five or six calls a week from people who think they might have a slide and aren’t sure what to do.
“It might start getting people to think,” he said, “we have to be really careful about how we’re developing.”
Landslides damage is difficult to quantify, but at one point in the ’80s, Hamilton County had the highest per-capita landslide cost in the country. Experts doubt that has changed much.
From 2015 to present, the Ohio Department of Transportation spent about $295 million on landslide repair.
In Kentucky, the state transportation cabinet spent more than $85 million on landslides in the past five years. That only covers landslides that impacted state roads, to say nothing for the many slides that happened on local roads or private property.
People just don’t think about it, said Crawford, the University of Kentucky geologist. They see a pretty house on a hill, and they buy it. They imagine a future with their family. Planting a garden. Taking long walks. The danger of a landslide — and the lack of insurance coverage under most policies — never crosses their minds.
“Generally, you’re on your own,” Crawford said. “Most people don’t know that, and it’s really, really a burden. I’ve seen a lot of damaged homes and people in bad situations, tragic situations, because of it. And they don’t know who to turn to.”
In Bellevue, Tom and Kathy Gerrein ended up paying nearly $11,000 out of pocket for two studies they sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, asking for help. In 2014, FEMA granted them and the other homeowners a deal to build retaining walls: FEMA would pay for 87 percent of the project and the homeowners would be responsible for the remaining 13.
That federal help is rare — a silver lining to so many homes being at-risk — but it’s been five years since the money was awarded, and not much has been done. Bellevue got a new mayor in January, though, who lamented the lack of progress and said the roughly $2.5 million FEMA project is one of his top priorities. The city isn’t paying for the project since it’s on private property, but it is responsible for overseeing the work since it involves federal money.
“It’s a giant project. It’s just so complicated,” said Mayor Charlie Cleves. But “it should have been taken care of by now. It’s a lot of homes that are caught up in this thing.”
The Gerrein house has a few cracks now that weren’t there before, and some of the doors don’t close as well as they used to, Tom said. Still, he feels lucky because, despite the major drop in value, he doesn’t think their house has suffered any major structural damage from the landslide.
Every time there’s a period of heavy rain, though, he wonders if their luck will run out. Because the ground is still shifting, and the yard is still dropping.
This is not just a problem for people who happen to take Columbia Parkway to work or who live at the top of Mount Adams or Price Hill.
This is about a backyard in Oakley that one day was level and the next had a rift about a foot-and-a-half deep.
It’s about a house in Clifton where the front yard cascaded down onto the sidewalk.
It’s about a condo building in East Walnut Hills, where owners pooled their money to build a 150-foot retaining wall after a landslide in February 2018 swept away a chunk of the backyard and crept uncomfortably close to the building.
“We felt like we had to act fast,” said Melanie Millar, a past president of the Husman House homeowners’ association. “We didn’t have a lot of room for losing more land.”
In North Avondale, John Lanzador had no idea anything was wrong until the city came this past summer and cited him for a landslide in his backyard. Lanzador’s yard at the top of the hill had slipped and was pushing mud and debris against the neighbors’ houses at the bottom, threatening serious structural damage.
The first estimate was a gut-punch: Half-a-million dollars.
“That’s worth more than the house,” Lanzador said.
Someone suggested he sue his neighbors. If they did something that triggered the slide, maybe they could be held financially liable. But Lanzador hated the thought of that. He didn’t think the landslide was anyone’s fault, and if anything, he wanted to help his neighbors, not face-off in court.
Someone else suggested he go bankrupt. Take the loss and walk away.
That felt wrong, too.
Finally, Lanzador was able to get a lower estimate from a company in West Chester, and he and his neighbors worked out a deal to share the cost. The hill is getting re-sloped, and there will be new retaining walls to protect the homes at the bottom.
Work started in January and was supposed to be finished by now, but it keeps getting delayed by rain. Lanzador hopes it’s done in a couple weeks so he can do his best to forget about it and move on.
It ended up better than what he was initially facing, but it’s still been tough.
“Nobody’s expecting a $100,000 hit,” he said. “I’m just wishing it’s over. Get it done with, and we’ll be OK.”