Kelso Landslide, 20 Years Later: As hillside gave way, man stood his ground

Rod Linden points to places where houses once stood before a landslide in 1998 destroyed them. (KATU Photo)

Twenty years ago this month, the federal government declared a hillside community in Kelso a federal disaster area.

People were faced with a difficult choice: take a buyout from the government and lose their homes. Or stay and pray.

Rod Linden stayed, and he’s still there.

The Aldercrest subdivision in the hills above Kelso was once bustling with new construction, families, retirees and dream homes with a beautiful view.

“We’d look out our window, and it’d look like a little village below us, with houses and everything,” says Linden.

Now, it’s all gone, wiped away in 1998 by unsettled ground that persistently moved downhill – six to 12 inches a day – for months. All the homes were destroyed.

“When the government was all done, they tore down everything,” Linden says.

Nature has reclaimed the entire hillside, hiding one of the most destructive landslides in U.S. history under a cover of green.

A 125-foot cliff at the top of the slide is invisible behind a lush blanket of alders, evergreens and blackberries. Almost everything has been hauled away by contractors. There are few signs that hundreds of people used to live here.

“You won’t see one manmade object down there – no sewer caps, no road, nothing,” Linden says.

He watched it happened.

“It was a slow-moving thing -- took maybe six to eight months,” he says. “The street started getting cracked, buckling. And pretty soon, they were actually toothpicks after months and months, everything was toothpicks.”

Linden is still there in a house perched just a few hundred feet above the disaster area.

His staying power? A mix of geology and guts.

“This hill is different than that hill. This hill is made out of bedrock,” he says about the hill where his house still sits. “We felt kinda bad for ourselves because we’re gonna be next, even though it didn’t happen. But we could feel that we’re gonna be next; we’re gonna lose our whole home.”

When the federal government declared the Aldercrest-Banyon landslide a disaster area, it cleared the way for federal funds to help homeowners recoup some of their losses. FEMA could only offer 30 cents per dollar of value.

People had four months to choose the payoff or risk a total loss. Most homeowners chose to get what they could and leave.

Linden didn’t. His home suffered a few foundation cracks, but nothing that made it unlivable.

“The Lord blessed me, but at the same time it was hard on everybody,” Linden says. “It was like a little scar inside you, because you feel sorry for those that left, and thankful you stayed, but it still hurt.”

In all, more than 120 homes were lost in the landslide.

It didn’t directly take any lives, but Linden says the stress drove at least one person to suicide and destroyed marriages.

It also spurred the state of Washington to map 260 square miles of Cowlitz County for landslides.

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