Hercules City Council declares state of emergency

March 30, 2011 1:06:48 AM PDT
The situation is dire in Hercules where a collapsing hillside is threatening a neighborhood. At least eight homes in the area known as The Heights have been severely damaged. Tuesday night the Hercules City Council passed a declaration of emergency.

This declaration of emergency paves the way for potential state assistance, but they need to act fast because the city believes two of the homes are actually holding up the hillside and the pressure is building.

"We need help. We need it soon," said resident Billy Vogele. He made his plea to the city of Hercules to adopt a resolution declaring a local state of emergency. The hillside is slowly swallowing up homes and his could be next.

"There is some concern that as the water dries out the slip plane will actually worsen and it could let go all at one time," said John McGuire, the chief building official.

McGuire says there are actually two major slides.

Four homes have been red-tagged, and four others were yellow-tagged on Monday, including the Vogeles' home.

"I want to be in that house until I pass away. I want to retire," said Billy.

"They really shouldn't be in there at night. My concern is they'll be asleep and the hill will move and they won't be aware of it," said McGuire.

"To tell the truth, I slept in my house. I'm not going to leave my house. I am going to stay and fight this," said homeowner Barbara Vogele.

"For the neighborhood across the street, I think they're safe," said Hercules engineer Erwin Blancaflor earlier on Tuesday. "For the neighborhood that is literally directly at the top of the slide, I think they're in jeopardy."

Blancaflor described the slide as a rotating slide 150 feet deep and 300 feet across. In other words, a monster in the mountain.

"Right now it appears now that the homes are actually serving as the retaining wall," said Michelle Harrington with the city of Hercules.

It's so fragile on Tuesday the city put up a wall of barriers, fearing the four red-tagged homes could end up across the street. The cost would be $4 million to save the homes now valued at $100 per lot. The city says those homes need to come out. Putting protective barriers in the street is all the city can do for now because the homeowners association owns the hill, making every single person in the neighborhood potentially liable.

There was a plan in 1999, when they first discovered the problem, to be able to solve this and it would have involved digging pilings 200 feet into the hill to shore it up. Instead the homeowners association decided to try something different. They tried to funnel the water, but clearly that has not worked.

"That empty lot up the street, we paid an assessment a few years ago, all of us," said neighbor Connie Jorgensen. "We paid, I think it was a $1,700 assessment to deal with the fallout from that lawsuit."

"And can we afford it? Right now we're here for a fiscal meeting tonight and I suspect that we probably cannot afford it," said McGuire.

A unanimous vote officially declared a local emergency, which could lead to state assistance, but for now it's a race against time to fix a dangerous and unpredictable situation.

In 2003, the city offered to establish a "geological hazard district" to mitigate the hill. However, the residents declined because they would have had to contribute to a fund. Now they're hoping for emergency state funds, but it's a bad time to be asking for money.


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