Landslide study could save lives, alert people to danger but NC lawmakers stopped funding it
Nearly two weeks have passed since a landslide tore through the home of Patricia and Leon Case, leaving a family in mourning and a pile of debris where a home once stood on the side of Warrior Mountain in Polk County. The large white cross in the front yard, on the side of U.S. 176, was the only thing left standing.
Patricia Case once fought neighbors’ opposition to erect that cross, one of her daughters said. Case died less than 50 yards away, when her garage collapsed on top of her while rocks, trees, mud and water came crashing down the mountain the night of May 18.
“I’m a very faithful person, and I feel that God’s plan is perfect, and what happened to Mom was meant to happen,” Bridgette Levi, one of Case’s two daughters, said. “But, I also feel like what happened that night didn’t have to happen, in that manner.”
Levi and the rest of her family now hope Case’s death leads to change. The Case family had lived in that house for more than 25 years, unaware they lived in a landslide hazard.
They might have known, if North Carolina had continued to fund the landslide mapping team that lawmakers commissioned in 2004, after landslides killed five people in Macon County. A team of seven geologists began mapping mountainous counties, identifying areas prone to landslides. The purpose of the maps was to create awareness of the danger of landslides, and save lives.
State lawmakers halted the project in 2011. Developers and politicians feared the maps might lower property values, and bring regulations that would make it more difficult to build. The mapping team completed four counties – less than one-quarter of the 19 counties they intended to map. Polk County was on the list, but the team never made it there before the project was defunded.
“You know, people who live in a tornado area, they know,” Levi said. “If you live in a flood area, they know. If you live in a mudslide area, shouldn’t you know? Shouldn’t you have a right to know?
“If the politicians are standing in the way of human safety, that’s just a shame. It just really is."
In the days after Patricia Case’s death, members of her family had declined almost all inquires to speak publicly. Levi chose to speak on Friday, she said, because she wanted to bring awareness: about the danger of landslides; about how her mother died and about her father, who lost his house, his wife and most everything he owned.
The night of the landslides, Levi said, her parents left the house together amid the chaos. She said Leon Case carried his wife, who’d been dealing with various health problems.
“She said, ‘I can’t make it,’ and he said, ‘You can make it,’ and she said, ‘I can’t,’” Levi said.
She said her father created a place in the detached garage for her mother to rest. Patricia Case then asked her husband to get help, Levi said.
“And she told him that she loved him,” Levi said. “And he said, ‘I’ll be right back.’”
Those were the last words they exchanged. Soon, the garage collapsed, trapping Patricia underneath. Rescue workers recovered her body the next morning. She is one of three people who have died amid landslides in the western part of the state. Two others died in Boone on Wednesday.
The deaths have led to a renewed push from some politicians, especially in western North Carolina, to restore the mapping project.
"That's what government is for, to help the health and safety of its citizens, and that's an obvious example," said Jonathan Jordan, a Republican House member whose district includes Watauga County. Lawmakers have included $3.6 million to resume the landslide mapping project in the proposed state budget.
It is unclear, Levi said, whether insurance will cover the loss of her parents’ house. Homeowners insurance doesn’t often include landslides.
The nearby town of Saluda is hosting a fundraiser for Leon Case at the fire department on June 16, and a family friend had established a GoFundMe page that has raised nearly $6,000 of its $10,000 goal. Patricia Case’s obituary sought donations to help Leon rebuild, though it’s unclear where.
“I don’t think that he’ll go back there,” Levi said of the home site that sat, unbeknownst to the family, in an area prone to landslides. “He may. Right now he doesn’t think that he can.”