County’s financial toll from mudslide will be millions

EVERETT — Money was the last thing on anyone’s mind when rescuers rushed to search for survivors and retrieve the dead.

Two weeks into the response to the March 22 Oso mudslide, the financial toll is starting to seep in.

The costs come from supporting specialized search teams from outside the area. There’s overtime for nearly every county department, plus bills for food, fuel and leased heavy equipment.

While hundreds of volunteers have donated their time, supporting them isn’t free.

Even with the state and federal governments picking up most of the tab, Snohomish County is certain to be out millions of dollars.

“Everything we’re doing is costing money,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “We’re feeding about 800 people per day. You can’t put people out in that muddy mess and not feed them.”

All that food? That costs about $15,000 per day — more than $100,000 per week, Ericks said.

Five specialized search teams from outside Snohomish County have joined the effort. One Pierce County team alone, Ericks said, costs $143,000 per day or more than $1 million for a week.

Operating expenses for a helicopter can run more than $1,000 an hour.

The county has had to hire trucking companies to cart away debris.

The state’s also racking up costs. The Office of Financial Management by Tuesday tallied up $1.7 million in state expenses. Much of it’s tied to mobilizing the National Guard and overtime costs for state agencies, including the state patrol, Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama declared the Oso slide a major disaster. That allows Snohomish County to seek reimbursement for 75 percent of eligible expenses. Of the remaining 25 percent, the state government is likely to pay for half.

Even so, Ericks said, the county may find itself without enough cash on hand to pay for operations as the weeks drag on.

While county officials have led the disaster response, other local agencies have participated, including fire departments and the town of Darrington. The governor acknowledged that they, too, have stretched their resources.

“We will have challenges for some of these local governments going forward,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “We don’t have a full answer about how to help them yet but we are going to explore all options.”

County Council Chairman Dave Somers said the focus remains on the emergency response, but he knows the slide is likely to shape budget discussions this fall, and what kinds of services the county can provide.

“It’s going to be a hit,” he said. “It could impact services. It’s too early to say what kinds of funding decisions we’ll have to make.”

There are long-term costs to consider, as well.

For at least several months to come, crews will be hauling away debris, some of it toxic.

“There are different kinds of hazardous materials out there,” Somers said. “Gas, propane, septic. All of those materials have to be handled in a specific way.”

The slide warped the landscape, creating new stream and river channels. Local, state and federal governments might want to modify the river to improve safety, drainage and ecology, Somers said.

The slide wiped out more than a mile of Highway 530. With mud piled up in some spots, several stories above where the state highway used to run, portions of any future road will need to be elevated, Somers said. And that will cost money.

Other costs will continue for years, as county social workers help survivors who were directly affected by the slide, by losing homes, breadwinners or jobs.

Ericks could only offer a guess at the price tag for what he called a “huge, huge event with huge, huge expenses.”

“We’re going to go on for as long as we have to,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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