A Homer neighborhood is at risk for a large landslide and the erosion there has already severely damaged some residents’ homes. But despite the risk, one homeowner won’t leave her spot.
Gee Denton lives on a coastal bluff downhill from the Sterling Highway. She walked around the back of her house where everything was tilted downward. Plants leaned toward the bluff and garden decorations have been migrating downhill.
“That fern used to be up there,” she said pointing to a fern that’s drifted toward the edge of her house.
Denton’s house seems to be slowly falling toward the bluff. Her home squeaks and groans, her windows are cracking and tiles are popping off her bathroom’s tub. And when you spill water:
“It all runs to a corner. I don’t know if you can tell, but it’s all kind of going in that direction,” she said, pointing to a corner of her home.
Denton claims there’s an array of people to blame for her house moving. The Alaska Department of Transportation for installing a drain that pours thousands of gallons of water into the area. The city of Homer for clear-cutting trees and vegetation. And then there’s Enstar Natural Gas Company. They also chopped down alders and installed a natural gas line near her home.
Shortly after Enstar put the pipeline in, her cabin slid off its foundation and thick mud soup engrossed her house.
“I’m about 5 feet 8 [inches] tall and I got stuck in there,” she said. “I think there’s still a boot down there somewhere. I was pumping a hundred gallons a day of water out of the back here.”
She spent years trying to fix the situation.
But it’s not just her shelter she’s trying to protect, it’s also her work. Denton is an artist and inside her home is handcrafted stained glass and intricately tiled tables. Outside, she built a decorated fence and said she spent over a hundred thousand dollars on plants for her garden.
“It’s been a lifelong art endeavor to make it beautiful and plant beautiful gardens and invite people in, and welcome sick people to get well,” she said.
It’s too late to salvage some of her work. She used her cabin next door to store her artwork and antiques but said is too dangerous to go in there now.
But she’s not giving up. She takes photos of mudslides, ditches and cut-down trees and puts them into a large white binder for evidence. She’s attended numerous city council meetings and brought up the issue with countless public officials and Enstar representatives.
“I’ve had to spend five and a half years in this season of my life begging for people to be responsible for their responsibilities,” she said.
But she said her pleadings often go ignored and the entities often blame one another. The city sent a letter to the Alaska Department of Transportation asking them to fix the drainage issue. The state sent a letter back saying that the drainage wasn’t the problem and that the city designed the area all wrong. As for Enstar, the company said: don’t look at us.
This summer, Denton’s attorney wrote a letter implicating all three parties, saying they could be liable in the event of a large landslide or other natural disaster. But Denton said it seems she has found at least one ally: Homer Mayor Ken Castner.
Denton called the mayor about public works cutting in her neighborhood and he quickly put an end to the project. He also sponsored a resolution that passed, prohibiting the cutting of trees and vegetation in public right-of-ways until May 2020.
“I’m really sorry,” he said to Denton over the phone. “I’m truly, truly sorry. I’m trying to advocate for community standards to be developed, that the community wants, and not be levied upon them by the government.”
They city said it has met with Denton multiple times and has commissioned studies that will help them best address the issue. Also: the city said the public works department has improved the ditches there.
But Denton said their maintenance has only made things worse. And retired geologist Mike McCarthy said it’s not enough.
“The initial development of that property was done in such a way that the roads were not wide enough,” he said. “Drainage was not sufficiently engineered. The drainage is still marginal.”
McCarthy has helped Denton and her neighbors with analysis and advocacy. He said there’s a range of factors — from clear cutting to climate change — that can put these residents at greater risk of a disaster. He adds that it’s hard to know exactly how big the risk is without a study but the bottom line is that the soil there is incredibly unstable.
Some residents aren’t holding their breath for change. Denton’s neighbors moved away citing safety concerns. They had to cable their home to pilings to keep it from falling off the bluff. Denton said she’s ready to continue their fight against the government and the gas company.
“If I leave there’s no pressure on them,” she said. “Nobody’s going to pressure them because nobody’s life is being threatened.”
Denton said she knows some people don’t understand why she stays here. It’s for justice.
“I’m willing to give my life if I have to slide down this hill and die for something to happen here,” she said.
She argues that for all she’s been through, her ask for the city and state to reimburse her for her property isn’t unreasonable.