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June 2012
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Officials say no national system in place to track landslide hazards


SEATTLE - People living in the path of a deadly Washington state landslide had virtually no warning before a wall of mud, trees and other debris thundered down the mountain. Some of the homeowners didn't even know the hillside could give way at any time.

Unlike the warning systems and elaborate maps that help residents and officials prepare for natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, there's no national system to monitor slide activity and no effort underway to produce detailed nationwide landslide hazard maps.

The U.S. Geological Survey doesn't track or inventory slide areas on a national scale, despite an ambitious plan to do so more than a decade ago when Congress directed it to come up with a national strategy to reduce landslide losses.

That's left states and communities to put together a patchwork of maps showing landslide hazards. In some cases, they are discovering that more buildings than previously thought are sitting on unstable ground. Even then, that information may not make its way to property owners.

Building a nationwide system is now possible with new technology, experts say, but would require spending tens of millions of dollars annually and could take more than a decade to complete with the help of states and cities. So far, however, there has been little public outcry for faster, concerted action.

"No one has pushed it, and it hasn't been a priority," said Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University.

"It's costly to monitor it, and we don't want to pay for it."

He added, "Now they're seeing these large disasters and saying this is important."

The challenge, experts say, is that many landslides are inactive or cause consistent low-level damage, while big, destructive landslides happen only sporadically.

They also don't cause the type of spectacular devastation hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes do - so they often don't get the same attention or resources.

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