Driftwood Way homes marooned by a massive landslide in Ledgewood last week became accessible by vehicle for the first time in nearly a week late Monday.
Island County Public Works road crews began building an emergency, one-lane gravel road Friday. Working through the Easter weekend, they were able to wrap up work at about 3:30 p.m. Monday.
The new road was not only a relief for full-time residents — marking an end of the necessity of slogging up and down a muddy trail to get to their homes — but it also gave vacationers who were caught up in the natural disaster the first chance to return overdue rental cars.
“They’ve been great,” Driftwood Way resident Greg Cosgrove said, referring to public works employees.
“We were really cut off for a while,” he said.
In the early morning hours March 27, more than a 1,000 feet of bluff collapsed, taking out a large section of Driftwood Way.
The road served as the only vehicular access to 17 homes in the small waterfront community.
No one was hurt but the devastation claimed one home and has left four others uninhabitable.
Two are on Driftwood Way and two are on Fircrest Avenue, the parallel street that runs along the top of the bluff.
The newly constructed road connects the southern end of Fircrest to Forgette Lane, a small side street off Driftwood Way.
Following what had essentially been a footpath, the public works crew hacked it out of the bluff side with small bulldozers.
Approximately 600 feet in length, the road was something of a Herculean effort as it was built over a period of just four days. Under normal circumstances, construction would take at least twice as long, said Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works.
“I’m very proud of my guys,” Oakes said.
Oakes was on vacation when the slide occurred. He rushed back and has been a key figure in managing the crisis. He didn’t open the new road to residents until he’d driven it first in a county-owned, two-wheel drive Ford Taurus.
While the new road restores some sense of normalcy for residents, as of Tuesday morning they were still without power and Puget Sound Energy officials are unsure when it will be restored.
“The best guess is crews could start (work) this week but there’s no estimate on when it would be finished,” said Walt Blackford, the power company’s spokesman for Whidbey Island.
The new utility lines are planned to run along the new road and the installation can’t begin until it was finished, Blackford said. Also, the power company had yet to decide whether to bury the lines or run them on poles overhead.
A decision was expected to be made Tuesday, Blackford said.
PSE officials on the scene Monday speculated that power won’t likely be restored to Driftwood Way homes until next week.
Eric Brooks, Island County’s emergency manager, confirmed that all the homes now have water. Three homes were without after the landslide and residents were making due by sharing water from garden hoses, he said.
“It’s a pretty resilient community,” Brooks said.
The fate of the five homes most affected, however, remains unclear.
The only house directly in the path of the landslide is visibly intact, but it was knocked off its foundation and traveled about a 150 feet from its original location.
The building has been red tagged, which means it’s too dangerous to enter. Brooks confirmed the renter, John Etheridge, was allowed to visit the house Monday afternoon but he was not allowed inside.
“We picked up what we could,” Brooks said.
Attempts to reach Etheridge for this story were unsuccessful.
The four uninhabitable homes have been yellow tagged, which means owners are allowed to enter and remove personal contents but they not permitted to stay for any length of time.
According to Oakes, it could be some time before the status of any of the homes changes. Engineers will have to be satisfied that the slide has stabilized and then additional analysis will be needed to determine if the homes are safe to live in.
“It’s going to take time,” he said.
As for the red-tagged home, Oakes said it is extremely unsafe. Just to enter the building to remove personal belongings would require work on the foundation, likely by a contractor, he said.
“He is in a tough spot,” Oakes said of Etheridge. “I feel for him.”
Additional work on the new road will continue throughout the week. At some point, it may also be paved and become the permanent access to the small community, Oakes said.
According to Cosgrove, turning the new road into the neighborhood’s sole access is not a popular idea among full-time residents. The little road may be fit to “send grandma down in the Buick” for now but residents are united in a wish to see Driftwood Way repaired, he said.
“We need a two-lane road back,” Cosgrove said.
According to Oakes, the landslide was both massive and geologically complex.
At least 200,000 cubic yards of soil was moved – about 40,000 dump-truck loads – and tons of dirt and trees were forced under the existing landscape.
Reuilding Driftwood Way is a consideration, but Oakes said he has serious doubts about its structural stability, the cost of construction and its long-term safety in a slide-prone area. Whatever is decided, it’s not a decision that will be made tomorrow.
“Right now, we’re just focused on finishing the (new) road and restoring access to residents,” Oakes said.