ROCKLAND, Maine — Sue Ellen Gerrish said she can never forget the night that one of the largest landslides in Maine history struck her neighborhood.
“It was like the end of the world,” Gerrish, 84, said Monday, recounting the events of April 16, 1996. “You try and try to recover but you can’t.”
The Rockland resident said she was awoken that night by a loud bang.
“I thought there was an automobile accident,” Gerrish said.
She got up and looked outside toward the street but saw nothing. She then looked out the back window toward Rockland Harbor, thinking maybe a tree had fallen, but again saw nothing.
Gerrish then went out on the back deck and said there was a strong smell as if the green muck sometimes seen on the shore of the ocean was right under her nose. She then realized that the backyard of her property was largely gone. A later analysis determined that about 200 feet of the property above a 50-foot high bluff had fallen away into the ocean.
That night, Gerrish immediately went back to the bedroom to wake up her husband, Doug Gerrish.
“First he told me I was dreaming,” Sue Ellen Gerrish said. “Then he looked out back and said, ‘I don’t see anything,’ And I told him, ‘Exactly, that’s what I’m saying.’”
Upon realizing what had occurred, her husband went to the garage and drove their two vehicles out onto Samoset Road while she called 911.
Gerrish became so stressed that she could not breath and was taken to Pen Bay Medical Center. She was given oxygen and released that night.
The next several days were equally chaotic.
“For a week, piece by piece the house crumbled,” she said before all of the home she and her husband had lived in since 1959 slid down the embankment.
The Gerrishes had homeowners insurance, but the policy did not cover losses due to movement of land.
“We didn’t get a penny,” Gerrish said of the insurance policy.
The couple was able to get into the house and remove some items such as living room chairs and a round table that now furnish her home on Katahdin Avenue in Rockland. Thanks to the effort of Art Henry of Thomaston, the family’s piano was saved when he brought in a crane and was able to lift it out of the crumbling home through a hole in the roof.
That piano since has been given to Gerrish’s daughter.
Some clothing and photographs also were saved, but the rest was lost to the landslide.
Gerrish’s husband died three years ago at the age of 84, the week before the anniversary of the landslide.
Gerrish said the community was very supportive after the disaster.
“People would bring us new clothing, food and money,” she said.
The Gerrishes were able to stay in a home on Samoset Road for the first couple months before having to find a place to rent. They purchased the Katahdin Avenue home about eight years ago.
A neighbor to the Gerrishes, 98-year-old Dorothy Smalley was rescued by emergency crews who removed her from her home, which collapsed the night of April 16.
The 1996 landslide occurred on a street adjacent to where a landslide had struck on Jan. 25, 1973, when more than 2 acres were lost in the backyard of two homes along the Waldo Avenue harborfront. No structures were lost in the 1973 landslide, although the 20-foot-high banking came within 20 feet of one home.
The landslide on Samoset Road in 1996 was the costliest in Maine history, with estimated damage worth about $710,000. While it received considerable attention across the state, smaller yet significant slides occur regularly along the Maine coast.
The Maine Geological Survey, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, states on its Web page that despite the long time between the landslides in Rockland, “their marked similarity indicates that such catastrophic landslides are recurring events in this region, and not isolated ones.”
Stephen Dickson of the Maine Geological Survey said that smaller landslides likely occur each spring but that they are not reported unless there is damage to a structure or if a road is threatened. The Maine Geological Society is trying to learn more about landslides by getting a better record of them. The state agency’s website includes a survey for people to report any loss of land.
The 1973 landslide occurred during a thawing, wet period in January. Almost exactly a year before the 1996 landslide, a couple who owned a home next to that site had a large chunk of their backyard slide into the harbor. April is often when the ground thaws, and both 1995 and 1996 had seen wetter-than-normal conditions.
Dickson said the type of soil, such as marine clay, and the steepness of the slope, are two of the most important factors in determining whether property is at risk of a landslide.
He said engineering work to reduce the steepness of slopes and placement of rocks known as rip rap are effective in reducing the risk.
The largest recorded landslide in Maine in terms of acres was on Nov. 22, 1868, when an estimated 20 acres collapsed into the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. The slide blocked the 200-foot-wide river channel for half a mile, raising the upstream water level at least 15 feet and causing serious flooding, according to the agency’s website.
More recently, a landslide occurred along the Penobscot River in the town of Greenbush on June 30, 2006. The slide undercut Route 2 and caused this section of roadway to be closed until the river bank stabilized, and the roadway section was rebuilt.
Another recent slide was on Patriots Day in 2007 in Buttermilk Cove in Brunswick. No buildings were lost, but a house next to the slope has major cracks in the foundation and basement floor.
Meanwhile, Gerrish said the pain from the loss of her longtime home still runs deep.
“I never go down that street anymore,” she said.