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Published: Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Personal items buried by Oso mudslide handled with care

OSO — Hundreds of pieces of personal property have been recovered from the site of the March 22 mudslide near Oso.
Books. Photos. Rings.
Guns. Flags. Computers.
Cars. Cameras. Wills.
As many as 50 items are still being recovered each day as workers search and sift through debris, said Gary Haakenson, the Snohomish County manager overseeing the slide recovery efforts.
Officials have been working to clean and restore the items and return them to families in a careful and respectful way, Haakenson said.
Some of the recovered items belonged to the 43 people who were killed in the slide. One of the victims, Kris Regelbrugge, has not been found.
The items are stored in a reunification center at an undisclosed location.
Many of the recovered items were muddy but not seriously damaged, Haakenson said. The property is laid out on tables and shelving units. Families are given private time to look.
Local experts have helped, including those specially trained in finding owner information inside computers, or in restoring photos, Haakenson said.
“There's just a whole lot of work that's going on behind the scenes,” he said.
Searchers have kept a covered space set aside at the debris field where found property is taken and initially cleaned before being sent to the reunification center.
Each family who has lost loved ones or property has been invited to the center, Haakenson said.
“Some have chosen not to. It's just too painful,” he said. “Some have said, ‘We'll do it later.'”
Some have made multiple visits.
“It's a very, very difficult process for families to go through, to walk in there and see some of the belongings of their loved ones,” Haakenson said.
Many items have been returned to their owners. Some folks don't want the property back, Haakenson said. Other families have expressed interest in donating mementos to a memorial.
Auto insurance companies have been involved because of recovered vehicles.
There are still questions left to sort out, such as what happens to property that is not claimed.
Sensitive items, such as tax records, firearms and wills, are being kept secure by the county sheriff's office.
Work also continues to restore private land that was damaged or otherwise affected by rescue and recovery efforts, particularly lots along Highway 530, Haakenson said.
The active search for human remains at the site ended in late April.
Some 200,000 cubic yards of dirt and debris are still being sifted. In some areas, the mud was 25 feet deep.
The sheriff's office still has been sending search-and-rescue crews back into the debris in recent months in hopes of bringing the last victim home.
Crews with heavy equipment are expected to be working 10-hour days in the slide area through September, primarily for searching and removing debris.
The damaged highway is open to two-way traffic, with “substantial completion” of permanent repairs anticipated before the rainy season begins in the fall.
Officials have repeatedly asked the public to be respectful while driving past the site, to stay in their cars, to not steal anything, and to not wander around in an area considered by many to be hallowed ground.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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