Why we’re ‘Living with Landslides’ in Greater Cincinnati

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Laure Quinlivan — the former award-winning investigative reporter and Cincinnati City Council member — didn’t know this region was one of the four worst landside hazards in the United States until she began researching her Living with Landslides documentary.

You probably didn’t know that either.

And it’s all downhill from there for the “City of Seven Hills.” The steeper the hillside in Greater Cincinnati, the bigger the problem, Quinlivan points out in Living with Landslides airing 9-10 p.m. next Wednesday Sept. 7 on WCPO-TV.

Quinlivan’s reporting — strongly supported by Glenn Hartong’s cinematography and editing by Jaime Meyers Schlenck (American Factory, 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement; Dave Chappelle’s Live in Real Life) — graphically explain our continuing problems with landslides throughout the area.

Yes, you’ll see the landslides which closed Columbia Parkway on the East Side and Elberon Avenue on the West Side. But you’ll also see how slides have gobbled up backyards from Harrison to the Milford area, Price Hill to Mount Washington, and Clifton to Ludlow. And how unstable hillsides have destroyed homes in North Avondale and Riverside, and how residents have paid thousands of dollars — and the city of Cincinnati has spent nearly $114 million — on repairs and retaining walls.

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Courtesy Laure Quinlivan

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Director-producer Laure Quinlivan (right) and cinematographer Glenn Hartong pose at the Columbia Parkway hillside construction site.

I’ve lived here 27 years and served on City Council, and I had no clue this was a top landslide area, that they happen in almost every neighborhood, and that they’ve wiped out people’s investments,” says Quinlivan, who operates LQ Consulting, a public relations and video storytelling company.

Until a few years ago.

That’s when Eric Russo, executive director of Cincinnati’s The Hillside Trust, asked her to make a film about landslides commissioned by his non-profit organization. He raised the funds for the 45-minute film which, with commercials, will fill an hour on WCPO-TV. She was the film’s writer, producer, director and narrator.

“We have a uniquely dynamic landscape here in this area — beautifully wooded hillsides that create these wonderful backdrops and incredibly dramatic overlooks that have these sweeping views of the Ohio River and Northern Kentucky. And yet behind this beauty are risks and dangers,” says Russo, executive director of the non-profit Hillside Trust that consults with local governments to protect hillsides through long-range design and land use policies; provides resources to land owners dealing with landslides; and promotes land conservation on behalf of private landowners.

“We are not a city of hills. We are a city of hillsides,” Russo says.

Living with Landslides lives up to Quinlivan’s high journalism standards, which earned two prestigious national Peabody Awards, an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton and 18 Emmys for her WCPO-TV I-Team stories.

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Courtesy Laure Quinlivan

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Steve Helmuth interviewed in front of his Riverside condominium. Note the crack in the stone wall of his garage.

Thanks to her partnership with her former employer, Quinlivan will show viewers news video of trees sliding down over Columbia Parkway in 1996 (shot by legendary Channel 9 breaking news videographer Chic Poppe) and an aerial look at craters at a Harrison condominium complex shot from WCPO-TV’s long-gone “Chopper 9” helicopter. The year project includes before and after scenes of the $18-million Columbia Parkway repair.

Living with Landslides includes interviews with beleaguered homeowners in North Avondale, Mount Auburn, Mount Washington, the Milford area and Riverside, who have spent thousands to abate landslide damage to their homes and property.

“Don’t fall in love with a site because of the woods behind you. If it’s on a hillside, do your due diligence,” says Ben Madsen of Miami Township near Milford, who paid $50,000 for a retaining wall to stabilize his backyard, and needs a second wall that costs $100,000.

Riverside resident Steve Helmuth bought an upscale modern condo where a developer built in an “active landslide area” that was rejected for the CityRama home showcase in 1998. After spending $100,000 for repairs, he “walked away” from the “unlivable” home, Quinlivan says.

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Courtesy Laure Quinlivan

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Brenda Hunda, Cincinnati Museum Center curator of invertebrate paleontology, points to layers of sediment and rocks at Rapid Run Creek.

The history lesson comes from Brenda Hunda, the Cincinnati Museum Center curator of invertebrate paleontology, and Tim Agnello, a Walnut Hills High School science teacher who wrote his University of Cincinnati master’s degree thesis on landslides.

Hunda took the filmmakers to Rapid Run Creek to show “the layers of sediment and rocks that ultimately will be the source of one of our landslides,” Hunda says.

“When these minerals are exposed to water, they flail apart, like pages of a book. And they get weak and they become mud, essentially. And as that mud builds up on hillsides, it tends to fall down,” says Hunda, a Clifton resident who grew up in Alberta, Canada.

From the Carew Tower observation deck, Hunda points to the vista and says: “When I first came here, Cincinnati was known to be ‘The City of Seven Hills.’ But as a geologist, I look at this landscape and I see those beautiful U-shaped valleys and I think: Actually no, the hills were already there, they were just all cut down by glacial outwash. We’re actually the city of three valleys. “

Agnello shows photos of how Cincinnati settlers in the early 1800s cleared the hillsides and used the lumber for homes or fuel, and how Columbia Parkway was built by gouging the hillside. He also talks about what the Cincinnati Post called “the most expensive mile of expressway” built in U.S. history — the $48-million I-471 interchange with U.S. 50 on the western edge of Mount Adams. Quinlivan uses 1974 WCPO-TV news film from damage to Mount Adams homes and of the 10-year project to build a massive $22-million retaining wall to fortify the hillside.

Quinlivan even breaks some news in the documentary. She points out that the city of Cincinnati recently built a 900-foot underground retaining wall in Theodore Berry Friendship Park, east of the Montgomery Inn Boathouse, to protect the water main serving Downtown from the hillside moving toward the river. The $5-million project “never even made the news,” she says.

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Courtesy Laure Quinlivan

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Eric Russo, The Hillside Trust executive director, explains the wall stabilization project along Columbia Parkway.

“I don’t think people have any idea of the scale of the problem in Cincinnati,” said Andy Orth, Greater Cincinnati Water Works chief engineer.

In Living with Landslides, Quinlivan says Cincinnati has spent $113,949,097 repairing “landslide damaged roads and retaining walls” since 1989, yet “capital funding for landslide repair has substantially declined, and the current level of funding is not sufficient.” The $18 million for the Columbia Parkway fix came from defunding the new headquarters for Cincinnati Police District 5.

The film does show some successful — but expensive — remedies by homeowners in North Avondale and Mount Auburn who worked with their neighbors as a group. That is one of The Hillside Trust’s recommendations, along with homeowners hiring their own geotechnical engineer and doing their own due diligence.

Those who go at it alone usually are shocked to discover how expensive solutions can be. Becky Economou thought a $15,000 retaining wall could stabilize what’s left of her backyard, but some estimates were more than six figures, Russo says.

“My advice,” Economou says, “is don’t buy a house on a hillside.”

Because the hills are alive — and slowly moving — all over Greater Cincinnati.

“We’ve always had landslides. We’re always going to have landslides. This is just part of our legacy living in Cincinnati,” Russo says.

“We have to learn to live with it,” says Hunda, the geologist. “We can work with it, and mitigate, but ultimately, what is built up, must come down. And that’s just what they’re going to do.”

After Living with Landslides premieres  9-10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7 on WCPO-TV, it will be screened for Mount Lookout residents 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, at The Redmoor, 3187 Linwood Ave. Community groups interested in hosting a screening should contact Quinlivan at laurequinlivan@gmail.com or through her Facebook page .  She also plans to enter Living with Landslides in film festivals.





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