The cracks measured 1/16 of an inch wide — about the thickness of a penny — when Jeremy Budge first noticed them in the wooden floor boards between his kitchen and dining room.
He thought nothing of it at the time. Chalking it up to warped wood or perhaps some water damage, Budge used his thumb to smear wood putty the length of the thin clefts. That was Christmas 2011.
The next clue was a door that didn’t quite shut correctly.
It took several months for the evidence to add up. Even then, the Budges could not have imagined that the small signs were pointing to the scene of devastation of last week when their house, which Budge’s father built, was ripped in two by a slow-moving landslide that has been creeping down East Gros Ventre Butte.
The break occurred along the same small cracks Budge tried to seal with putty more than two years ago.
Sometime between Thursday evening and Friday morning, a rapid drop in the scarp face of the slide cleaved the kitchen and living room from the rest of the house.
Budge, who owns a landscaping company, was born and raised in the neighborhood on the butte, in a house just above the one that was destroyed.
“The truth of the matter is we’ve lost everything. That was what we had,” Budge said. “I think we’re still in shock for the most part.”
A dozen public agencies, engineering consultants and contractors have been working for the past two weeks to map the ground movement and to come up with ways to slow it.
Most recently crews began piling dirt and concrete blocks on the “toe” of the slide around the base of Budge Drive, beneath the cliff and the wrecked house above.
It is unclear at this point whether the strategy is working, although the slide’s movement has slowed to 1 inch a day as of Tuesday morning, Assistant Town Manager Roxanne Robinson said. That is down from the 3 inches a day reported Monday and as much as 10 feet late last week.
“It’s still moving but it’s slowed significantly,” Robinson said. “We’re kind of back to where we started with the slow, slow movement. [The engineers] are encouraged by that, but they don’t want us to necessarily get our hopes up.”
Rain is also in the forecast, she said, which adds to concerns.
The compacted dirt has created a temporary road that restores access to the top of Budge Drive, which will allow crews with heavy drilling equipment to bore holes above the slope to analyze water and soil content.
Town public works employees are trying to provide a backup diversion for the water main beneath West Broadway, where it passes in front of Walgreens.
The slide has yet to reach Broadway, Robinson said. That has been one of the town’s chief concerns, because the subterranean water pipe serves a third of Jackson. If it ruptured it would rapidly flood the street and could pose a danger to motorists.
“We’re measuring the risk every day versus the benefit” of keeping the road open, incident co-commander Willy Watsabaugh said. “If I thought the first person would be at risk on Broadway, I would close the road.”
The pharmacy itself hadn’t moved as of Tuesday morning, Robinson said, but its parking lot has been ravaged by the slide. Buckled pavement juts as much as 10 feet into the air in some places. The town’s pump station and the adjacent Walgreens sign are leaning at increasingly cockeyed angles.
The slide has slowed since late last week, when the cliff above Walgreens became a community-wide spectacle. More than 100 people lined the opposite side of West Broadway on Thursday afternoon to gawk at the nearly continuous rock fall from the slope. The town of Jackson started playing a live feed of the face on its website to give residents the option of watching from home.
By Friday the rockfall had slowed, but the bisected house became the newest spectacle for people filming video on their phones and snapping photos.
Jeremy and Sara Budge, along with their daughters Amber, 15, and Heather, 12, were among the crowds.
“It’s really a weird emotion, because it’s interesting and then you’re really sad,” Sara Budge said.
“You realize this is your house being torn apart, and then you start tearing up,” her husband said.
The Budges first grew uneasy in the spring of 2012, once the snow melted to reveal a crack in the driveway. Jeremy’s father took measurements of the house that showed some movement had occurred, but the family still didn’t know the severity of the situation. It could have been something related to the foundation or another fixable issue, Budge thought at the time.
“We were concerned, but we didn’t think it was a major problem,” he said. “We were all kind of scratching our heads for the first year.”
It wasn’t until the following spring, around Mother’s Day of 2013, that the Budges became seriously worried.
“There was substantial movement in the structure by then,” Budge said.
There wasn’t any new movement, it was just that existing problems had become much worse. Cracks were larger, doors fit worse in their frames, and the house had dropped a few inches.
That is when the family contacted its insurance company and others about the situation. Engineers began monitoring the property.
Under the advice of a lawyer, the Budges wouldn’t discuss any more details about who was involved.
“We’re more concerned about making a solid life for our kids and putting the pieces back together,” Jeremy Budge said.
The family moved out of the now-annihilated house in November 2013 because of mounting concerns about the stability of the slope. They stayed in a motel for two weeks and then had to ask renters to move from the house they own farther up on the butte so they could move in.
That move came after weeks and months of anxiety. A rug had been laid over cracks in the house to ease the nerves of one of their daughters. Jeremy had to completely re-hang the front door.
During the summer, once work on the Walgreens began, the construction rattled the house and became unnerving. Another time the family thought they felt the tremor of an earthquake.
“I almost jumped out of the window,” Sara Budge said.
There were bad dreams of falling down the slope.
“We’re all having nightmares, we can’t live here anymore, this is scary,” Jeremy Budge said, describing the family’s mind-set before moving out. “The cracks, they were growing, and we live on top of a cliff.
“We were scared for our lives, basically,” he said.
Less than two months after the Budges moved out of their house, the town of Jackson approved a certificate of occupancy for the Walgreens below.
The approval came after the town accepted a minor deviation to the pharmacy’s development plan that allowed a net to be draped across the slope, as rockfall was regularly reported on the cliff. Included in the approval was a message that read, “the town understands that beyond the release of surface material off the hillside, some subsurface ground movements have been discovered.”
Town Manager Bob McLaurin said he was unaware of cracks in the house or that the family had moved.
Decisions about the development have been based on geotechnical analyses, he said. Those were conducted by Ray Womack and Womack and Associates. The firm is now part of Jorgensen Associates. The town is paying about $3,600 per day for Womack and engineers from Jorgensen to consult and survey ground movement.
The town has maintained that it knew about ground movement for about a year, but that the severity of the situation wasn’t known until April 4, when shifting earth broke water pipes near Walgreens.
Worry escalated quickly in the ensuing days. The town issued an evacuation order the evening of April 9, leaving residents with little time to grab a few belongings and leave their homes.
The Budges were on a spring break vacation in Arizona when they heard of the evacuation. Friends and family mobilized quickly that day to help move lawn care equipment used for his landscaping business, Budge said.
The family made it back to Jackson by April 10. The day before they left for vacation, a cabinet “popped” off the wall, which worried them enough that they moved some of their remaining personal items from the house above the cliff to the one higher on the butte.
Now the Budges are staying at Trinity Ranch north of town in a space offered to them by a donor through the Red Cross, for which they are grateful.
“It’s nice to go up there and get away from it all,” Jeremy Budge said.
But the situation still has left them with little certainty about the future.
“We have no clear plan,” Sara Budge said. “It’s day to day.”
Besides the house split in two, the Budges own a townhouse in Jackson and the other home on the butte in which Jeremy grew up. It was also built by his father, after work and during the weekends in the 1970s. He doubts that structure will survive the landslide either.
“I’m sure that upper house is gone too,” he said. “I don’t have much hope for that.”
Budge’s business, Budge Lawn Care, is still open, he said. The Lamb family has let him store equipment on a lot they own.
When asked whether they are able to muster any optimism, Jeremy replied, “We’re worn out at this point.
“I hope there’s a quick resolution to this,” he said. “We’ve already been dealing with this for two years. We’re tired.”
A consultant hired by the town said development and grading on the butte contributed to the slide.
The hillside was cut years ago to make way for Budge Drive and for Broadway.
In 2011 the Town Council agreed to a conditional use permit that allowed the site to be graded by 8 feet. In December 2012, the council approved an amendment to the permit to allow the site to be graded closer to the cut bank.
There also was a 200,000-gallon water leak at the Budge’s house that same year, although authorities have said geological activity probably created the leak in the first place.