The Suburb That Slipped Away
THIS past August 7 New Zealand’s Auckland Star carried the headline “THE SUBURB THAT’S JUST SLIPPING AWAY . . . ”
“Early in May a watermain burst in the quiet residential area of Abbotsford, near Dunedin,” the paper explained. This, continued the story, was “the signal for the beginning of the Abbotsford slip which has forced 200 people out of their homes.”
Abbotsford is a developing suburb that spreads up a hillside into farmland. Early in June some of the beautiful new houses began to crack. The land literally split and began slipping away, eventually creating a chasm. Strong pleas from evacuated families resulted in their being allowed brief sorties to their homes to salvage belongings. A couple of houses were considered so dangerous by local authorities that they were demolished. But this was nothing compared to the destruction that was to follow.
A Major Disaster
On Wednesday, August 8, a family to the west of the split were gathered in their lounge. A rending sound from behind their back fence brought them outside. All was quiet except for a strange “pinging” noise in the overhead power lines. And then a house farther down the road “backed out like a car”!
A family living three houses away were planning to evacuate on Friday, August 10. Hearing unusual sounds, the husband peered into the darkness of the back garden. In disbelief, he watched as the shadowy shapes of familiar shrubs sank out of sight below ground level.
The family left the house and went to a neighbor’s house. As they stood together trying to determine a course of action, a power pole leaned over almost to the ground and lines snapped amid showers of sparks. The house that they had just come out of tilted up gracefully and sank rapidly over the edge of a widening crevasse.
At the information center on the hill, the operator on duty closed down the radio link for the night at about nine o’clock. As he walked down the deserted streets, he heard the crash of glass and other sounds of demolition. He ran in the direction of the noise and saw a chasm opening in the road ahead of him. The opposite side was slithering away “like toothpaste.” Overhead lines hissed and snapped, plunging all Abbotsford into darkness.
Hearing people screaming beyond the chasm, he called Civil Defense headquarters on his walkie-talkie and requested assistance. In astonishment, he watched as the gap widened in the light of his torch. The movement was so rapid that the gap was some 20 m (66 ft.) wide by the time the fire brigade arrived—too far to reach the people on the other side.
Across the gap a family had been preparing to evacuate. In the light of their headlights they saw the road break up before them. They leaped in terror from their vehicle and ran toward the sound of other voices. Soon hundreds of public service personnel were on the scene with spotlights. A helicopter hovered overhead, ready to lift off the 17 people marooned on the land that had slipped away. But at the foot of the slip firemen found a way to bring them down safely.
An Awesome Scene
Daylight revealed an awesome scene. A large section of the Abbotsford suburb had tobogganed down the hillside, still bearing two streets lined with houses, sidewalks, fences, postboxes and parked vehicles. A concrete path dangled over the cliff edge. A car and caravan lay crushed together, half-buried under mud. A garden stood high, undisturbed and orderly in the middle of the giant slide, but the house it belonged to had vanished.
Strangely, a small, lonely glasshouse stood among broken and twisted houses, with not so much as a crack in a single pane of glass. Higher up the hill, strung across the ravine, lay a tumbled line of homes, their brick-veneer walls gone, exposing their framework, giving them an odd Tudor appearance.
Relief, and Assessing Damages
Food, blankets, money and offers of accommodations poured into Civil Defense headquarters from all over New Zealand. Trucks and their drivers parked outside for two days in case their assistance was needed.
Financial losses were tremendous, estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Some 70 houses were destroyed or had to be demolished. Others were severely damaged. But, amazingly, amid all the destruction, not one person was killed. And the only injury sustained was by a workman who trod on a nail.
After recovering from the shock, the mood of many victims turned to anger. It was learned that less serious landslips had occurred in the area in 1870, 1925, 1939 and 1968. Prior knowledge of this perhaps would have affected the building plans of many. This hill-suburb disaster may encourage others to reevaluate the safety of their home location.—Contributed.