At Oso mudslide, reminders of Mount St. Helens

OSO — What surprised me most was the enormity of it at close quarters.

I have driven Highway 530 hundreds of times and I was stunned by the volume of mud, trees, clay and debris that had rumbled through a beautiful landscape and piled up on the southern side of the Stillaguamish Valley.

The depth of the tragedy itself was obvious. Forty-three people lost their lives; one victim still is missing. Dreams were crumbled. Instant heroes rose up. And there was the frustration of a whole, tight-knit rural community that stretches more than a score of miles between Arlington and Darrington in northern Snohomish County.

I knew about the enormity of events from reading weeks of coverage about survivors, the heartache of victims’ loved ones and the gritty determination to search for and bring all of the dead home. I saw the pictures in the paper and on the television screen.

What caught me off guard is simply the volume of what caused this mayhem: tons of gray and brown stuff filled a green valley floor to overflowing. It left tangled pieces of what had been homes, vehicles and lives in its ugly path.

The place was changed forever.

In the distance to the north, there was the yawning gap in a 600-foot hillside, the culprit. A hill full of rain-soaked glacial deposits suddenly gave way and unexpectedly rumbled across the North Fork Stillaguamish River, burying a neighborhood and the highway.

Two months after the Oso tragedy, we followed a pilot car from the elevation of Highway 530 up the hill of a temporary road along a power line right-of-way. The road was beefed up to provide a lifeline to the town of Darrington. The highway itself was completely shut down until May 31 after some 90,000 cubic yards of material was removed — and that’s just from the road.

Even though we had gained altitude, we soon were no longer looking down at the valley floor. At that point, it was at the level of the temporary road.

It was my initial first-hand view of the utter devastation.

The amount of material that descended within minutes, and the force it must have produced, was mind-boggling.

Tangled metal ruins, formerly vehicles of unknown types, were swept to the edge of the temporary road that for a month kept Darrington residents connected with employment centers and supplies.

As a former reporter, the itch to get into the coverage early on was strong after the March 22 mudslide, but pending back surgery kept me from even volunteering.

At first view, the devastation reminded me on a much smaller scale of another natural disaster that I covered 34 years ago when Mount St. Helens blew its top, devastated 150 square miles of mostly wilderness and sent mudflows down river courses to farms and shipping lanes.

Some 57 lives were taken in that disaster and the mountain lost 1,300 feet of its beautifully sculpted peak in an explosion that released the energy of an atomic bomb.

There had been warning signs of the eruption and do-not-enter zones had been established around its flank. But that wasn’t enough.

The unexpected lateral blast blew off the north face of the volcano. It leveled miles of timber in southwest Washington and it sent nearly a cubic mile of mud and debris down valleys.

There were heroic stories in May 1980. People struggled for their lives among logs thrust about by a magna-warmed river, surging and thick with sludge. One person recounted escaping a tent amid tumbling trees and a choking layer of volcanic ash many miles from the eruption. Some of that camper’s companions never emerged from their tent.

Brave Army, Air Force and National Guard helicopter pilots risked their lives to pluck survivors from danger, hoping that the ash would not clog their crafts’ engines.

What happened in March of this year at Oso was so much more compressed, but it also came with the same kind of unexpected fury.

A hill called Hazel gave way, blocking the river and depositing a muddy mixture of material that rescuers likened to quicksand. It also swept away the neighborhood known as Steelhead Haven.

Residents and experts had known of the hillside’s unstable slopes. In recent years there have been slides that temporarily blocked the North Fork. But nobody predicted the volume of material that swept a mile or so fully across the valley.

The Oso disaster might be smaller compared to the volcano’s eruption. But the debris flowed directly onto homes, not a forest. And like the volcano’s lateral blast, it came without warning. Even motorists traveling on Highway 530 became victims.

Tragedy is horrendous for those going through it as well as those who come to tell their stories. Tragedy also can bring out the very best in those who can help.

Heroes were not lacking March 22.

Local residents, some with family or friends in the devastated area, raced into danger to rescue victims or look for the missing. At Oso, there were helicopter crews lifting trapped survivors. Loggers and other area residents struggled through the waist-deep mud, sometimes finding survivors; sometimes finding those not so lucky.

Often they defied authorities who at first tried to keep them out for their own safety until the realization sunk in that the locals knew the area, knew where to look and were well prepared for the work.

Anyone who could help did.

Soup kitchens opened to feed the displaced and the rescue teams. Prayers were said. Emergency centers were opened, equipment and gear were donated and teenagers rallied to make sandwiches for the hungry.

Neighbor helped neighbor.

Corporations, tribes and individuals from throughout the state and elsewhere opened their pocketbooks to help survivors, bury the dead, supply prepaid gas cards, cancel outstanding mortgages and otherwise comfort the afflicted.

The Oso mudslide is a disaster that may never be forgotten. It will forever leave a scar on the affected residents as well as the landscape. But how folks reacted, their goodwill, just added to the rugged cohesiveness embedded in the psyche of these valley residents.

The slogan, “Oso Strong,” rang out during the rescue and recovery operations. It’s true. The gritty people who reside in that rural valley displayed their strength and set an example worth following.

The road to recovery might be long, but don’t bet against them.

Jim Haley is a former longtime Herald reporter who retired in 2008.

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