In Darrington, people band together to do the job

DARRINGTON – It’s been hectic at the IGA store in town since the Oso landslide with locals coming in to buy groceries and swap stories, and reporters and camera crews filling aisles, waiting to pounce.

“Looking out my window, I see CNN, Channel 5 and even some foreign broadcast channels,” said Kevin Ashe, who owns the store with his brother Randy.

He and his wife, Sheila, have been involved in the relief efforts, so much so they haven’t been able to keep up with their jobs. Sheila Ashe works as a bookkeeper and around the store.

“We called the high school to see if one of the high school students could help us out,” said Kevin Ashe, who serves on the town council. “They sent us down a girl. She’s out on the floor hanging tags, doing shelf work and other things to free my wife up.”

Their employees also are stepping up: “We don’t have to ask them, they’re just staying on. That’s one thing about Darrington. We see a situation and we do what needs to be done.”

The IGA’s wholesaler, Super Value in Tacoma, asked him what they could do to help. Kevin Ashe doubles as the store’s meat cutter so they sent up a retired Safeway butcher on Wednesday to relieve him for a few days.

“Man, he had his apron on and he was cutting meat,” Kevin Ashe said. “He said, ‘You go on and take care of what you need to do.’”

As the town deals with the grief of losing neighbors, friends, relatives and acquaintances, people are back at their jobs.

Most people work outside of town in Arlington, Everett or even Seattle. The closure of Highway 530 means that a 30-minute commute has grown to an hour and a half or more as people have to drive on a detour through Rockport, Concrete and Mount Vernon to get out of Darrington.

The state reopened Mountain Loop Highway, but it’s a scenic one-lane route with 15 miles of gravel road. It’s not something many locals will use.

The closure of the highway has led some families to live apart during the work week.

Jeff Voter and his fiance Dawn Hogan live west of Darrington and she is a teacher at Haller Middle School in Arlington.

Her 35-minute drive to work now would take two hours. Likewise, at least six Darrington teachers who live west of the slide have been offered places to stay at the homes of people living in and around the logging town.

Hogan is staying with friends on the west side of the slide. Voter is home with his 4-year-old son whose tee-ball season in Arlington also came to a premature end.

“We are just hunkering down now,” Voter said.

The slide essentially has brought his fence-building business to a halt. Roughly 90 percent of his work is on the west side of the slide. The extra cost of gas for his large pickup makes it prohibitive.

“I can’t bid on fences,” he said. “There is no way I could be competitive.”

Community Transit plans to begin on Friday new bus service connecting residents of Darrington with grocery and medical services in Skagit County, and job centers in Arlington and Everett. The transit agency had a route that ran along 530, but it’s been shut down since the highway has been closed.

Laurence and Toni Larsen, who own the Darrington Hardware store, said that a lot of people are staying out of town with family and friends in order to eliminate their commute.

“One person came in with a motor home and we filled it up with propane,” Laurence Larsen said. “She’s going to take it down to the Everett to stay there during the weekdays and come home during the weekends.”

The landslide knocked out phone and Internet connection to the town for the first couple of days, Toni Larsen said. It’s a small thing compared to the loss of life, she said. But it made it tricky to take orders since so much commerce is done with debit or credit cards.

Frontier Communications was able to step up and restore service by Monday, she said.

The problem they’re facing now is getting supplies into town. They get a shipment once a week from their co-op. They drive into Everett once a week. It just takes more drive time.

“I assume UPS is just eating the program and going around the long way,” Laurence Larsen said. “We use them, of course.”

Highway 530 is such a lifeline into Darrington that they worry about how long it will be closed.

“I’m hoping they figure it is stable enough to get some sort of rough road before a month goes by,” she said.

Back at the IGA, Kevin Ashe said that “everybody is busy, busy, busy and then you’re overwhelmed, I know that’s the way I am.”

“What is happening is unimaginable,” he said. “It’s something that might happen somewhere else in the world, but you think it would never happen in your community.”

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