(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli). In this photo taken Monday, May 6 2013, Jagtar Singh is comforted by his neighbor Blanka Doren, in the living room of his home he was forced to vacate when the hill it sits on began to sink in Lakeport, Calif.
LAKEPORT, Calif. (AP) - Scott and Robin Spivey had a sinking feeling
that something was wrong with their home when cracks began snaking
across their walls in March.
The cracks soon turned into gaping fractures, and
within two weeks their 600-square-foot garage broke from the house and
the entire property - manicured lawn and all - dropped 10 feet below the
It wasn't long before the houses on both sides
collapsed as the ground gave way in the Spivey's neighborhood in Lake
County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco.
"We want to know what is going on here," said Scott
Spivey, a former city building inspector who had lived in his
four-bedroom, Tudor-style dream home for 11 years.
Eight homes are now abandoned and 10 more are under
notice of imminent evacuation as a hilltop with sweeping vistas of
Clear Lake and the Mount Konocti volcano swallows the subdivision built
30 years ago.
The situation has gotten so bad that mail delivery was ended to keep carriers out of danger.
"It's a slow-motion disaster," said Randall Fitzgerald, a writer who bought his home in the Lakeside Heights project a year ago.
Unlike sinkholes of Florida that can gobble homes
in an instant, this collapse in hilly volcanic country can move many
feet on one day and just a fraction of an inch the next.
Officials believe water that has bubbled to the
surface is playing a role in the destruction. But nobody can explain why
suddenly there is plentiful water atop the hill in a county with
"That's the big question," said Scott De Leon,
county public works director. "We have a dormant volcano, and I'm
certain a lot of things that happen here (in Lake County) are a result
of that, but we don't know about this."
Other development on similar soil in the county is stable, county officials said.
While some of the subdivision movement is occurring
on shallow fill, De Leon said a geologist has warned that the ground
could be compromised down to bedrock 25 feet below and that cracks
recently appeared in roads well beyond the fill.
"Considering this is a low rainfall year and the
fact it's letting go now after all of these years, and the magnitude
that it's letting go, well it's pretty monumental," De Leon said.
County officials have inspected the original plans
for the project and say it was developed by a reputable engineering firm
then signed off on by the public works director at the time.
"I can only presume that they were checked prior to approval," De Leon said.
The sinkage has prompted county crews to redirect
the subdivision's sewage 300 feet through an overland pipe as manholes
in the 10-acre development collapsed.
Consultant Tom Ruppenthal found two small leaks in
the county water system that he said weren't big enough to account for
the amount of water that is flowing along infrastructure pipes and
underground fissures, but they could be contributing to another source.
"It's very common for groundwater to shift its
course," said Ruppenthal of Utility Services Associates in Seattle. "I
think the groundwater has shifted."
If the county can't get the water and sewer service
stabilized, De Leon said all 30 houses in the subdivision will have to
The owners of six damaged homes said they need help from the government.
The Lake County Board of Supervisors asked Gov.
Jerry Brown to declare an emergency so funding might be available to
stabilize utilities and determine the cause of the collapse. On May 6,
state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, wrote a letter of support asking
Brown for immediate action. The California Emergency Management Agency
said Brown was still assessing the situation.
On Wednesday, the state sent a water resources
engineer and a geologist to look at the problem. Sen. Dianne Feinstein
sent a representative the next day.
Lake County, with farms, wineries and several
Indian casinos, was shaped by earthquake fault movement and volcanic
explosions that helped create the Coast Ranges of California. Clear
Lake, popular for boating and fishing, is the largest fresh water lake
wholly located in the state.
It is not unusual for groundwater in the region to
make its way to the surface then subside. Many natural hot springs and
geysers receded underground in the early 1900s and have since been
tapped for geothermal power.
Homeowners now wonder whether fissures have opened
below their hilltop, allowing water to seep to the surface. But they're
so perplexed they also talk about the land being haunted and are
considering asking the local Native American tribe if the hilltop was an
"Someone said it must be hexed," said Blanka Doren,
a 72-year-old German immigrant who poured her life savings into the
house she bought in 1999 so she could live on the rental income.
The home shares a wall with her neighbor, Jagtar
Singh - who had two days of notice to move his wife, 4-year-old daughter
and his parents before the hill behind the back of his home collapsed -
taking the underside of his house and leaving the carpet dangling.
Doren is afraid that as Singh's house falls it will take hers with it. Already cracks have spread across her floors.
Damaged houses in the subdivision have been tagged
for mandatory removal, but the hillside is so unstable it can't support
the heavy equipment necessary to perform the job.
"This was our first home," said Singh, who noticed a
problem in April when he could see light between the wall and floor of
his bedroom. A geotechnical company offered no solutions.
"We didn't know it would be that major, but in one week we were gone," he said.
So far insurance companies have left the owners of
the homes - valued between $200,000 and $250,000, or twice the median
price in the county - dangling too. Subsidence is not covered,
homeowners said. So until someone figures out whether something else is
going on, they'll be in limbo.
"It's a tragedy, really," contractor Dean Pick said
as he took photos for an insurance company. "I've never seen anything
like it. At least that didn't have the Pacific Ocean eating away at it."
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