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Tranquillity's Risk Delivers a Loss


TACOMA, Wash. — Carmen Burns-Woods acknowledges that she has long known the dangers of living in Salmon Beach--a funky, idyllic neighborhood of waterfront homes pressed up against a cliff on the western side of this city.

"But we thought it was worth it," she said sadly Thursday as her home, a victim of Wednesday's temblor, lay wrecked on the sand. "I think we still do."

Before purchasing her property three years ago, Burns-Woods, just like her neighbors, signed a waiver agreeing to hold the city of Tacoma blameless in case of landslides. Yet she bought here anyway, attracted by the thought of life in Salmon Beach, beneath a wooded slope and beside the cool waters of Puget Sound.

That tranquillity was short-lived.

A landslide triggered by Wednesday's powerful quake pushed her home off its pilings and sent it crashing through her deck and onto the sand--where it sat Thursday, waiting for high tides to flood in.

Burns-Woods, who owns a Tacoma locksmith business with her husband, Derek, said the wood-shingled cabin will be a total loss.

"We're devastated," said Burns-Woods, who said the couple had no earthquake insurance. She said they hoped to receive help from the federal government and planned, somehow, to rebuild.

"It was our dream to live on the water, and we want to live there again," she said quietly.

Just behind her house, halfway up a 300-foot bluff, a gaping wound of bare earth marked where a huge chunk of hillside had torn away. Fallen trees lay twisted with downed power lines amid a mountain of debris across a narrow pathway behind the homes.

Nearby, neighbors worked frantically to cut tree limbs and remove the earth and debris pressing against the homes of several other Salmon Beach residents. But city building inspectors later declared seven more homes at risk and ordered them evacuated.

And as rain fell Thursday afternoon, geologists and engineers assessing the damage said the risk of further landslides would increase as the hillside became saturated.

"Let's put it this way," engineer Mark Rohrbach said as he surveyed the scene. "I wouldn't live down there right now."

Salmon Beach--an eclectic collection of about 100 large wood homes and ramshackle cabins accessible only by water or a pair of steep, winding stairways--has a long history of landslides.

Nearly a decade ago, city officials considered evicting the residents but relented after they pleaded to be allowed to stay. The city decided instead to require all homeowners to sign a waiver acknowledging the dangers of living at the base of a high, unstable slope.

But the slides continued. In February 1996, one sent several feet of mud onto the deck of one home. Ten months later, another left three more houses in ruins.

Still, residents say they won't live anywhere else, waxing eloquent about the sweeping view--from the graceful Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the Olympic Mountains--the peaceful lifestyle and the ability to fish off their decks.

"Sure, it's risky, but you don't think about that too much when the whales are migrating," said Ralff Somoff, who has lived in Salmon Beach since 1977.

"We live in nature, in the woods, on the water and pretty close to the city. Where else can you get that?" he said.

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