Landslide! Pass the popcorn

By on April 22, 2014
Fire Chief Willy Watsabaugh fields media questions at the base of the landslide. Photo: Christie Koriakin
Fire Chief Willy Watsabaugh fields media questions at the base of the landslide. Photo: Christie Koriakin

Fire Chief Willy Watsabaugh fields media questions at the base of the landslide. Photo: Christie Koriakin

JACKSON, WYO – Slo-mo land-slide provides latest act of nature spectacle

Forget television. In Jackson Hole – whether it’s flames licking the top of Horsethief Canyon, raging spring runoffs, blinding blizzards or neighboring wild animals rearing rambunctious fox or cougar cubs – Mother Nature produces the best entertainment.

Conveniently located across from accessible parking and sidewalk benches, the Budge Drive Landslide is Jackson’s latest natural spectacle. The slow-moving land mass has drawn interest from passersby, geology buffs and concerned citizens.

“I usually check in once a day,” said Aaron Feuerstein, a chef at Trio American Bistro. “To see the changes day to day is amazing. I think for me, the draw is the sheer force of nature. And I really feel for the people whose lives have been affected and the town officials who have had to deal with it.”

Since cracks started forming on the hillside above the newly constructed Walgreens, the story of a deteriorating landmass and subsequent residential evacuation has piqued the interest of national and local audiences alike. A header reading “landslide slowly devours Wyoming town” is one of several sensationalized headlines that ran in national media outlets reporting the story from afar.

Jason Wright, network engineer for the Town of Jackson, said a webcam set to the hillside has attracted over 60,000 people over the past week.

Megan and Lawrence Stordahl rest on a bench across from the sliding land

Megan and Lawrence Stordahl rest on a bench across from the sliding land

“Since Friday our website has had more hits than it has in the past year, and they are from almost every country in the world, except for some countries in Africa,” he said.

Viewership peaked on Thursday when the landslide sped up from its previous pace of an inch a day to three feet of movement in 24 hours.

“You could actually see the rocks fallings off the face. It was moving so fast,” said Jim Quarberg, who took an interest in the slide because of his experience in civil engineering. “I think there was about a thousand people out here on Thursday. There were tons of people.”

Town efforts to buttress the landmass with heavy concrete slabs were stopped Thursday because of safety concerns, but crews have since returned to their work of reinforcing the toe at the base of the moving earth.

“The movement we saw Thursday was pretty incredible,” said Fire Chief Willy Watsabaugh. “It’s kind of humbling to see what our ability is to hold those things back.”

Three businesses owned by Joe Rice – Sidewinders Tavern, Ignight and Wine Shoppe & Spirits – remain closed past an anticipated reopening. Between Thursday and Friday, the access road to Budge Drive became impassable, an underground sewer line broke, and the house at 1045 Budge Drive, located directly above Walgreens, split in two.

“When I left on Thursday the house was still in one piece,” said Quarberg, “I came Friday morning and the thing was cracked in half.”

Since Friday, movement has slowed back down to about an inch a day, but incremental bending and buckling still draws a continuous trickle of residents hoping to catch some live-action rock fall.

On Easter Sunday, Roger Strout and his family were dressed in their Sunday best.

“We just thought we would watch the landslide for the rest of Easter,” he said. “It’s such a large piece of ground that you can actually see moving.”

Chief Watsabaugh said there was potential for the landslide to cross Broadway, but that crews are working to prevent that by placing weight at the toe of the slide.

“I think we would see some acceleration before that happens. We are measuring the risk every day,” Watsabaugh said. “If I thought the first person was going to be at risk on Broadway, I would close the road.”

For now, Broadway remains open and distracted motorists trying to catch a glimpse of the debris have caused two fender benders.

Authorities are asking drivers to stay alert while driving or pull over if they want to check on the scene.

The Gun Barrel parking lot has become the de facto viewing lot, at times resembling a drive-in movie theater.

Hoping to witness Mother Nature in action, Lawrence and Megan Stordahl stopped to rest on a bench in front of the slide while on a bike ride down Broadway.

“We saw some actually fall, just a little bit of dirt and rubble,” Megan Stordahl said.

“We’re trying to have fun with it because what else are you going to do with it,” said Lawrence Stordahl. “We know some of those people who live up there, and they are in a hard spot right now.”

Speculation about the cause of the slide is a hot topic among the spectators.

“Something this sizable, doesn’t seem like it could be one person’s responsibility,” Becky Strout said. “There was oversight from the town, there were engineers, there is Mother Nature. There are many factors that we could blame. We just have to go forward and deal with it.”

Watsabaugh said crews continue to try to slow things down, so that a long-term plan for Budge Drive can be put into place.

“Our optimistic view is that we have some time right now,” he said. “We won’t know what the ultimate plan for Budge Drive will be for several weeks. … We don’t know what Mother Nature wants to do now.”

About Christie Koriakin

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