When Kevin McCabe noticed a jagged crack in his driveway at 7620 Tonawanda Creek Road Wednesday morning that extended about 60 yards, wrapping through his backyard abutting Tonawanda Creek and along the edge of his just-finished barn, the Royalton resident was concerned.
But McCabe couldn’t imagine the devastation he would experience about six hours later, coincidentally after a phone call with his insurance company. From inside the house, McCabe remembered hearing a sound like a “car accident,” with his friend immediately shouting that a tree was going to hit the home.
When McCabe rushed outside, he was shocked to see that a section of his driveway, several trees, much of his backyard and his white Ford F-150 had plunged 17 yards downward and several yards toward the creek. None of the damage appeared to extend into the creek; the remnants of the concrete from the driveway and affected trees had tilted slightly back toward the house after sinking.
After McCabe called 911, several emergency and environmental crews responded to assess the landslide and tow his truck up a steep dirt path to house level.
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“It blows my mind that something like this could happen,” McCabe said Thursday outside his home. “I was in shock. I still am.”
The house was called uninhabitable Wednesday by responders, and Jonathan Schultz, director of emergency services and fire coordinator for Niagara County Emergency Services, confirmed at a press gathering Thursday that the house had been condemned, or deemed unfit to live in. Schultz urged the public to avoid the immediate area around the house because it was not secure, with the possibility of further damage.
Heidi Heary, McCabe’s sister who lives in Darien, was one of the first to see the impact of the landslide. She said she heard the house, whose foundation had been exposed by the landslide, making unusual “creaking and popping noises” and did her best to describe the state of the backyard. “The earth just dropped,” she said. “The earth literally just fell.”
The natural effects left an impression on McCabe, too. “The creek was bubbling like a Transformer was about to come out of it,” he said.
McCabe said his insurance plan would not cover the damage because his policy, like many in the U.S., doesn’t cover “earth movements” such as landslides, mudslides and sinkholes. He planned to work with his attorney to see if there was a solution.
Schultz said the uncommon natural event could be called either a landslide, which denotes a downslope movement of earth typically caused by gravitational erosion, or land subsidence, an almost straight-down drop of land due to movement of earth materials underground.
“This could have been undermining for years here,” said Schultz, who said he’d never seen a landslide at this scale. “Now all of a sudden it got to the point where it eroded so much that it just came down.”
In April 2009, the Morphy family of Amherst had even less warning of impending disaster. Their backyard plummeted to the bed of Tonawanda Creek due to a similar landslide, leading to the demolition of their house. Although insurance did not cover the Morphys’ losses, substantial fundraising efforts netted them $45,000 toward a home they purchased later that year, The News reported.
McCabe said he closed on the single-family home in January and had spent months rehabilitating it. To qualify for a Federal Housing Administration loan, he said he had the home and property inspected multiples times within the last year. He was the lone resident in the home. According to data on real estate site Zillow, McCabe purchased the home for $124,000, but he said it was recently appraised at $230,000.
“It really is a nightmare,” Heary, McCabe’s sister, said. “He worked really hard on the house. He started fresh on it and was really happy with how it turned out.”
“I made the house perfect,” McCabe said. “The only thing not perfect is what it was sitting on. I guess I wasn’t the best at earth science in school.”
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.