Earlier this week, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin accompanied Gov. Jay Inslee on another trip to the demolished Steelhead Drive neighborhood east of Oso.
Speaking with crews working to recover bodies from the mudslide, the mayors and the governor passed out hugs of thanks and words of encouragement.
As they were talking, a body was found and lifted onto a stretcher. For a few minutes, people stood in respectful silence.
Then one of the men visiting with the mayors politely excused himself.
“I believe they have found my brother,” the man said.
Breathtaking dignity and strength. That’s how the mayors described the scene, one of many they have shared since the disaster March 22.
Rankin, 53, and Tolbert, 55, are bonded in the desire to help the extended Arlington-Oso-Darrington community recover from the disaster. The emotional, personal and general economic toll is great.
Getting Highway 530 opened again is a priority for all involved, Tolbert said.
“We have no solid guesstimate as to when that might happen,” she said. “We’re going to be OK, we just don’t know the path to that point yet.”
Elected to serve part time, the mayors have been working 12-hour days, at a minimum, since the slide. They have become the spokespeople for the upper Stillaguamish River valley and were instrumental in urging the governor to get President Barack Obama to sign a major disaster declaration for the area.
The mayors are on the phone with each other daily, talking about the help the region is receiving and just making sure the other is holding up.
Tolbert’s energies have been focused on guiding monetary donations for the recovery, checking on the families of firefighters working at the debris site and lobbying for help from the state and federal governments.
This week she made personal calls to officials to make sure one of the surviving college students, orphaned by the deaths of her parents, would get help to finish school.
“The slide has consumed all of us,” Tolbert said. “We have hundreds of new faces in town. And we are going to do what it takes to recover and survive.”
Tolbert, whose day job is director of the Arlington Fly-In, makes most of her calls from her office at the airport. It’s quieter there, and it’s a place where she can multitask well into the evening.
Rankin’s desk at Town Hall is a mess. A white board on the wall is covered with to-do lists.
When asked by Sen. Patty Murray what she could do to help, Rankin told her that Darrington could use a little good news, like saving the fire lookout on nearby Green Mountain.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would protect the historic lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The bill now goes to the House, where it could be taken up as soon as next week.
The legislation is necessary to block a U.S. District Court order that the historic fire lookout removed. A Montana-based group in 2012 successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service for using a helicopter to repair Green Mountain’s lookout in violation of the Wilderness Act.
Longtime Darrington town clerk Lyla Boyd delayed her retirement this month to help Rankin get through the turmoil.
“Dan has stepped up and assumed the father role, Boyd said. “At the end of these long days he continues to be well-spoken and level-headed.”
Then, with much-needed levity, she teased, “Now if we could just get him to take the chew out of his mouth when he is interviewed for TV news.”
Rankin is quick to praise the people of Darrington for their help. He talks about the loggers clearing trees that were downed in the slide, the people who risked their lives to search for survivors, 89-year-old Frank Bryson who graded the gravel drive serving the Darrington food bank after heavy loads of donations damaged the roadway, the women who cooked a supper for hundreds each night and those who took those who lost their houses and families into their arms and homes.
“I was down in Arlington for a meeting the other day, and it felt like life there was happening mostly as usual,” Rankin said. “It was almost surreal. Like a lot of people in Darrington, I haven’t even been able to get to work (Rankin runs a small specialty lumber mill) but I think most of my customers will understand.”
Meanwhile, Rankin and Tolbert are impressed with the outpouring of support for their people.
“I think one reason people have been so generous in their donations is that they see we are a tight-knit community and they want to be a part of that,” she said.
“Up in this valley we do what is right, not out of obligation, but because it is the right thing to do,” he said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.