Workers from Mount Calvary Cemetery and the City of Portland teamed up to stabilize an embankment after the season’s largest landslide poured onto Burnside Road March 15.
No graves were damaged, but the new edge of the 45-foot-high high cliff is uncomfortably close to three dozen burial sites from the 1960s. The foot of one row of graves is about four feet from the precipice, which is in the cemetery’s southwest section.
“We are blessed because it could have been much worse, but we are still concerned,” says Tim Corbett, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland.
Access to the site is limited. City workers are repaving a stretch of the damaged road, which is due to reopen March 24.
Amid heavy rains, a 75-by-150-foot slab of soil, rock, trees and power lines cascaded, pushing one car off the road. No one was injured. City crews used machinery to bring down unstable material. Contractors hired by the cemetery worked overtime to lay plastic sheets and sandbags to keep more water from saturating the bank.
That’s the short term fix. For the long term, Corbett, soil engineers and city officials are devising a plan. One possibility is to build out the bottom of the slope, so it’s not so steep. But that could encroach on the road’s right of way. A retaining wall is another option.
Whatever form repairs take, Burnside Road is likely to go down to one lane during the work this summer.
Corbett estimates the fix will cost about $150,000. The slide further presses on cemetery finances especially with the current construction of a new funeral home across town at Gethsemani Cemetery.
“We are pinching pennies now,” Corbett said.
Some unused sites where cremated remains would have been placed can no longer be used. Families who own those sites have been notified and given other locations.
Corbett has been asked to speak to the Oregon Cemetery Association about emergency management. Under discussion are proper and dignified ways to treat remains if a landslide or other disaster displaces them. Caskets from older interments are not always marked with identification of the deceased and deteriorate over time, so remains could be hard to identify.
Because the slide happened at a cemetery, city workers could not drive machinery to the hilltop to work. They seem to realize it’s sacred ground.
“The City has been really sensitive to what is going on,” Corbett said.
There have been landslides on the property before, but no graves were compromised.
This unusually wet winter saw 42 slides in the hilly area west of Portland.
“The West Hills are unique in that a lot of dirt sits on bedrock,” says Corbett, a former Milwaukie public works director.
The slide was about a quarter mile from the site where a new house is planned for the archbishops of Portland. The property was not threatened.
Crashing soil destroyed part of the irrigation system, so that section of the cemetery may go without water this summer.
Visitors and media are asked to stay away from the area for safety.