The collapsed hillside that united a small Prince George’s neighborhood


Daisy McClelland stands in the front yard of the Piscataway Hills home she built, with a little help from her friends, in 1988 in Fort Washington, Md. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist July 22

When a natural disaster results in property loss, insurance companies sometimes invoke a legal term — “act of God,” which exempts them from claims. Perhaps the term would be more appropriately used to describe acts of kindness.

Like those by neighbors in the Prince George’s County community of Piscataway Hills, where 28 homes were affected by a landslide in May. Six homes have been deemed uninhabitable. The only road into the neighborhood was damaged, and now a makeshift repair provides access. Residents are also relying on makeshift water and sewer services.

More than two months after the hillside collapse, you’d think the neighbors’ spirits would be dampened, if not broken. Not even close.

“We said in the last group meeting, we have never felt as close as we do right now,” said Dawn Taylor. “It’s almost like a family feeling. You want to make sure that the neighbor down the street is okay. I told a neighbor, ‘If you want to go out to dinner and need to get away, it’s our treat.’ We have bonded not because we have to, but because we want to.”

That bond has translated into a united front in the community’s quest for relief from county and Maryland officials. And it appears to be paying off: On Thursday, residents are expected to meet with county officials to hash out a timetable for getting their roads repaired and the collapsed hillside shored up.

Such neighborliness after a disaster is not a given. Tornadoes and hurricanes do not always bring out the best in people; rampant looting — not caring and sharing — can follow. Call it the “Lord of the Flies” syndrome, when selfishness triumphs over the common good, as depicted in the novel by William Golding.

The neighborhood, which overlooks the Potomac River in Fort Washington, experienced the “slope failure,” as geologists call it, May 5. The road in had cracked open, and a side of the hill had fallen.

“I had just come from church, but I did not say, ‘Okay, God’s got that. We’re good,’  ” Taylor said. “I was in absolute shock, and then fear set in. Trees were falling. The county was putting evacuation orders on doors. People were saying we couldn’t stay in our homes. You had water being brought in by the Red Cross, and that says ‘disaster’ to me.”

KCI Technologies, an engineering firm hired by the county, concluded that torrential rain in April and early May had saturated a 30-foot-thick layer of clay beneath the soil on a ridge 65 feet high. The clay became too slick to hold the soil, and the earth began a downward slide, as they called it. Insurance companies would call it an “act of God,” leaving residents to foot the bill.

Piscataway residents say they still believe that man had a hand in causing the slope to slide, that breaks in water and sewer lines over the years weakened both the road and the hill.

The county could fix the road, which is county property. But the road can’t be fixed without shoring up the slope, which belongs to the homeowners. In other words, the county could claim that the road was damaged by the homeowners’ falling slope. Then the county would come off looking as bad as the insurance companies.

But County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has responded with compassion and a sense of fiscal responsibility. He has promised to look into the possibility that county officials failed to drain water away from the hillside. He has also pulled together $11 million in county funds and is seeking as much as $10 million more to help the homeowners restore their neighborhood.

What had begun as a contentious and suspicion-filled encounter between the county and residents has mellowed into a more trustful relationship.

Speaking to residents on Baker’s behalf, Nicholas Majett, the county’s chief administrative officer, said, “We are not going to stop until we come up with a feasible option that makes [residents] happy and safe and keeps them in their homes.”

There had been a meeting of the minds, with county officials and Piscataway residents apparently on the same page.

If that wasn’t an “act of God,” how about divine intervention?

milloyc@washpost.com

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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