OSO, Wash. – A sometimes awkward, invariably agonized conversation about the future has begun here at the site of last month’s devastating landslide, about what might be rebuilt and what was perhaps forever lost that day.
It is a delicate chemistry, responders and residents say, with the needs of the families grieving or looking for their loved ones – 39 people were killed by the slide, with four others still missing – balanced against the needs of the many other families and businesses struggling with the slide’s aftereffects on the local economy, the transportation system and the environment.
“We’re doing what a family would do: We’re listening to each other,” said Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, who has repeatedly visited the communities around the slide, helping guide a transition in tone from disaster response to recovery and reconstruction. “No one in those communities is untouched.”
The impacts are daunting and deep.
A 1-mile section of state highway crucial to life in this corner of the North Cascades, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle, lies shattered and buried, with pieces of the yellow divider line carved out and hurled up into the debris field. State engineers said this month in community meetings that they hoped to open a primitive one-lane detour within weeks, but that restoring even partial traffic on the old Route 530, portions of it under 20 feet of mud, was months away at the earliest.
The Stillaguamish River and the streams that fed it in the Oso Valley have shifted into new patterns of flood risk and water quality. Some wells have turned turbid with silt, while others are now bubbling like artesian springs, as the millions of tons of moving earth changed subterranean pressures.
Perhaps most profound for many people is a new awareness of the dangers of life here, amid crumbly and steep glacial slopes, that is changing the psychology. The Cascades are uniquely prone to slides, as rivers like the Stillaguamish, fed by the wet Pacific Northwest weather, cut through the hundreds of feet of rubble left on the mountaintops when the glaciers retreated. The landslide on March 22 also came after weeks of near-record rain.
“I don’t think it ever felt safe,” Erika Morris, a resident of Darrington, on the east side of the slide from Oso, said as she stared at a map one night last week after a town hall meeting with state and local officials. The map showed old landslides in and around Oso, some dating back perhaps 10,000 years or more, with almost every stretch of the valley marked by a shadow of prior impact.
“This kind of map just shows you,” she said, running a finger down the surface. “These are slides, unstable slopes, glacial till – and things happen.”
Robin Youngblood lost her home in the disaster and says that in a recurring dream she still sees the wall of mud roaring toward her. She said she did not think any residents of Oso, which had a population of about 180 before the landslide, would ever go back and try to rebuild homes or their lives in the area. She has imagined instead a memorial and park there, with perhaps a carved totem pole made from the 100-foot-tall spruce tree near her house that withstood the slide.
“The other half of the mountain is still unstable,” Youngblood said. “I’m certainly not going to take the risk of going through that again.”
Small-business owners on both sides of the slide said they worried that state and federal disaster relief efforts, perhaps in sensitivity to the grieving families, might go so slowly that an economic disaster would compound the landslide. With the state highway closed, towns on both edges of the slide – Darrington to the east, Oso and areas of Arlington to the west – have effectively been put on dead-end roads; transit through the corridor during the crucial summer vacation season will not happen this year.
“I think the efforts are caught up in the emotions,” said Carla Hall, 57, the owner of Fruitful Farm, a flower and organic produce market near the slide, where customers, she said, have all but disappeared.
“There are no simple solutions,” Dan Rankin, Darrington’s mayor, said in an interview at the town’s Community Center after a meeting with residents in the gym.
“How do we pick up the pieces?” he asked, as volunteers and neighbors came by to say good night.