Dozens of Black Hawk residents are dealing with the emotional and financial fallout after a sinkhole exposed the fact that part of their community was built over a mine.
The April 27 discovery impacted not just the 15 families who were forced to evacuate from East Daisy Street in the Hideaway Hills community, but others who live in fear that their homes are also at risk.
“I don’t want to necessarily call it a trauma, but it is. We had to completely uproot” and “in the middle of a pandemic," said Allison Ireland, who had to evacuate with her husband, two children and two dogs.
The financial impact has been “devastating,” said Ireland, whose family is paying their mortgage plus rent, renter’s insurance, a pet deposit, storage fees and other unexpected costs “that really add up.”
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First-time homeowners Megan Salisbury and her husband moved into the Hideaway Hills neighborhood less than a year ago.
“We’re literally right next door” to the fence that marks the evacuation area, Salisbury said. But “no one’s been able to confirm 100%” where the mine ends and a map shows that our house is right next to a collapse that prevented cavers from further exploration, she said.
“I don’t feel safe” and “my family is afraid to come over because they don’t want to fall in,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s nuts, and (there’s) COVID-19 on top of it.”
Both groups — evacuees and those who remain behind — now live in limbo.
The evacuees are figuring out where to live, trying to cover their mortgages plus their evacuation-related expenses, and waiting to see if they will be given a FEMA grant that would cover 75% of their home value before the sinkhole emerged. And those left behind live in fear that their homes could collapse as they wait to see if the state or Meade County will pay for an engineer to study the safety of the entire neighborhood.
Some families from both groups have filed a lawsuit against the developer, engineer and/or county — who all knew that part of the community was built over a mine.
We’re in “purgatory limbo,” Wendy Wagner said Thursday afternoon as she drove back to her Hideaway Hills home after living in an RV for three weeks with her husband, two children and dog. “You don’t know what to do or feel.”
Families who were forced to evacuate or chose to do so have been living in various temporary housing arrangements.
Salisbury and her husband decided to stay put for the moment but are storing all of their important financial documents at her mother’s house.
“We can’t move. We can’t afford a mortgage and another place to live,” she said.
Wagner and her family — who live three homes down from the evacuation zone — lived in their RV as they waited to see if they would be told to evacuate.
But that hasn’t happened so they’re moving back home. Wagner, 38, said it was difficult to live in the crowded RV parked at Ellsworth Air Force Base — her husband's workplace — while having to drive back home to check the mail, do laundry and take care of the cat they left behind.
“There’s no way we could afford rent and mortgage,” so we can’t move to a new home, Wagner said. And we can’t sell because “realtors are telling people that their homes are worth zero dollars.”
Ireland and her family have been renting a home in Rapid Valley but plan to buy a new home.
John Trudo, 40, has been having to pay extra storage, fuel and food costs after his family was forced to evacuate the day the massive sinkhole opened in his front yard.
“A person doesn’t really realize how much eating out costs until you don’t have the ability to cook a meal in your own kitchen,” he said.
Trudo, his wife, two children and large dog have been living with his parents in Belle Fourche, but plan to move into a rental home at the end of the month.
“It is a much smaller house than we have now, but it is a place that would allow us to keep our Great Dane,” he said.
Trudo said he and his wife — who’ve both had their work hours cut due to COVID-19 — will have to find some way to pay all their bills.
“We can’t afford to make a mortgage payment plus rent that costs as much as a mortgage on top of all of the other expenses we are incurring right now,” he said.
Some of the families said they may be able to delay their mortgage payments but the only way to avoid paying it off would be to default — which would then ruin their credit scores. And their home insurance doesn’t cover earth movement.
“For my wife and me it is a roller coaster of emotions. Trying to stay positive in a situation like this is completely exhausting, Trudo said. But it’s “important to us that we set a good example for our kids on how we are handling this so we minimize their stress as much as possible.”
“At first I was really scared but now it’s just like, it is what it is,” said Lilly Sturis, Ireland’s 17-year-old daughter. “I had to just completely give up on school” due to the moving and stress but teachers were understanding.
Wagner said her seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter often played with neighborhood friends near where the sinkhole opened up.
“When I start thinking about what could have happened” if the kids were there “I almost want to vomit,” she said.
Wagner said she and her husband don't want to have their credit score impacted by housing and mortgage issues since they've already dealt with that once before. She said they had to sell their home while stationed in Idaho during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.
“We fell in love with the house” in Hideaway Hills and with “so many people from that neighborhood,” she said, adding that part of this tragedy is so many close neighbors being forced to move away from each other.
Conversation with Noem
Gov. Noem spent about an hour speaking with some of the Hideaway Hills residents during a conference call on Thursday morning, Ireland said.
“I was very happy that she took the time to make this phone call” but not all residents were aware of it, Ireland said. “I am glad that she has finally recognized we have a large issue out here,” said Trudo.
“Most of them were extremely concerned about their own safety and that of their families,” Noem said of the families during her Thursday afternoon news conference.
Noem said the director of Emergency Management plus the secretaries of transportation and energy and natural resources were also on the call.
The governor said she shared that the state is helping the county process the FEMA grant and if it’s approved, the state will cover an extra 10% of the homes’ value — meaning homeowners will lose 15, not 25% of the value. She also told them that they can apply for a separate natural disaster state grant that's worth up to $2,500.
Noem said the state will help the community find an engineering firm that can evaluate the extent of the mine but didn't say if the state would also cover the cost of that study.
Ireland and Salisbury both said Noem and her team weren’t aware of the public records that show Meade County knew about the mine when they approved the housing development.
Salisbury said she didn’t get the chance to speak with Noem, but if she had, she would have told her that the state either needs to pay for the study or force Meade County to do so. Residents and the sanitary district can’t afford this themselves, she said.
Salisbury said she would have also invited Noem to visit the neighborhood to see the sinkhole and padlocked evacuation zone.
“Come see the devastation," she said.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.