By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
OSO — John Lovick walked several hundred feet along what used to be Highway 530 until he reached a spot where debris piled up.
Along the way, the Snohomish County executive thanked muddied searchers and equipment operators, who were hosing off after a morning’s toil. He surveyed the rutted dirt landscape that gave off a septic smell.
“It’s something you can’t just shut down at the end of the day,” Lovick said. “It’s probably the most complex situation I’ve ever seen in my life.”
On Wednesday, day 19 since the Oso mudslide, Lovick made one of his regular trips to visit the aftermath.
The disaster has consumed his daily routine — and more.
He’s started his days by delivering his wife, Karen’s, homemade cookies to the county’s Emergency Operations Center in south Everett. He drops in on command posts in Arlington and Darrington. He stops to thank almost everyone he meets.
“The bottom line is to let the professionals do what they do best and support them,” Lovick said. “They know I appreciate them.”
He said he’s trying to spend as much time as possible with people who lost family, friends or homes.
To date, county officials have listed 36 confirmed dead and 10 missing.
He tries to offer families hope.
“You want them to know you’re not going to stop,” he said.
When there’s nothing to say, he just listens.
The emotional gravity creeps up on him unexpectedly.
“I’m not ashamed to say it — I have an Oso moment every day,” Lovick said.
“You want to be there for your kids. You want to protect them. You think that entire families were wiped out — babies.”
There’s been talk of a memorial honoring the victims. Lovick said that’s a conversation that needs to start with the families, to learn what they want.
For now, there’s the mind-boggling logistical operation to run. His administration has been leading a rescue and recovery effort that, to date, has involved 117 agencies and legions of volunteers. About 1,000 people were working on recovery and relief efforts on Wednesday.
In the Everett operations center, Lovick listened in as about 50 workers took in their morning briefing. People in the room wore colored vests, identifying roles such as public works, public health and planning.
Some of the biggest tasks of the day, they were told, would involve coordinating the debris removal on Highway 530 and continuing to build a berm to drain flood water from the North Fork Stillaguamish River, which is backed up on the eastern side of the slide.
The center remains as busy as on day one, though the mission has changed focus, said Jason Biermann, a county emergency operations manager.
“Our priority is still to support the searchers and their efforts to bring closure to the families,” Biermann said.
In Arlington, classrooms at the old high school have become makeshift bedrooms for teams of emergency workers from around the country. Mobile kitchens are set up outside. Large whiteboards keep track of all the moving pieces, the status and who’s in charge of what. An ad hoc finance department keeps tabs on payroll and expenses, its staff made up of people from Longview, Port Townsend, Olympia and Coos Bay, Ore.
Lovick said he believes the response will be studied in the future as the gold standard for how agencies can work together.
“When people look at this disaster, they’ll say this was the appropriate response and was done well,” he said.
There will be plenty of time — later — to discuss policies about building homes in landslide areas, he promised.
Riding along in the executive’s sport utility vehicle was Chuck Wright, a retired community corrections supervisor and mental health professional.
Wright counseled emergency workers in the aftermaths of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. He wondered how the searchers would cope with their work in the slide zone.
“These are the walking wounded,” he said. “I have great respect for them, great respect for them.”
Brian Hicks of the U.S. Forest Service led Lovick and Wright on a walk on the edge of the debris field. An assistant fire manager in Colville National Forest, Hicks has become familiar with scarred terrain on the opposite side of the state. He pointed to where a house used to stand, a good a mile from the collapsed hillside.
“It’s pretty sobering,” Hicks said.
“The silence gets to you,” Wright said.
“I’ve been seeing kids’ toys here,” Hicks said.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.