Inslee asks Obama for federal aid; new search teams arrive

OSO — As crews in hard hats solemnly raked through rubble from the deadly Oso mudslide, Washington’s governor on Monday pressed President Barack Obama for federal help.

Gov. Jay Inslee asked the president to declare a major disaster in Snohomish County.

Inslee’s appeal focuses not only on the human toll and emergency response but begins detailing the community’s long-term needs.

It’s not clear how quickly the president may act.

“There’s no certainty,” Inslee said. “It could be just a few days or it could be a few weeks.”

The governor’s request includes federal money to defray the costs of 48 funerals.

When asked how the state came up with the figure, Inslee said, “Those are estimates that we hope are not fulfilled.”

Officials late Monday released a list of 22 names of people presumed missing as a result of the slide. Eighteen people had been identified from among the 24 bodies brought to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. An additional three victims were found in the debris field on Monday, but the remains have not yet been retrieved.

Many lived beneath the steep hillside that gave way above the Steelhead Haven community late on the morning of March 22.

Day of transition

Monday was largely a day of transition atop the disaster area. New teams of searchers, including some U.S. Army soldiers, were being brought in to spell National Guardsmen and exhausted firefighters, loggers and other local volunteers.

Some families with missing loved ones remained on the excavation site — a reminder to everyone why their tedious, back-breaking work is so important.

“It’s a very critical week,” said Richard Burke, a Bellevue Fire Department lieutenant who guided reporters from a ridge above the excavation. “We are getting some fresh muscles and some new eyes.”

On the west end, six large trackhoes scooped up large bites of soil. Volunteers wearing orange and yellow hard hats and holding hand tools examined each earthy mound, combing through the dirt when signs of lost possessions were found.

“They are going through it with absolute reverence,” Burke said.

On the southwest corner of the site were white tents where keepsakes are taken and cleaned of dirt and other potential contaminants, a first step to being reunited with their owners’ families. The process is expected to take two to four weeks.

Burke on Monday found reasons to be optimistic there could be quicker progress in the grim search.

Hoses snaked away from the site in different directions, siphoning off water that had flooded the site and burdened searchers from Day 1.

The weather — sunny and warm — provided better footing and visibility. It was the second-wettest March on record for the area, dumping more than 18 inches of rain on Darrington. By contrast, forecasters are predicting a dry start to April.

“With a break in the weather, it’s less logistical work and more actual searching,” Burke said.

Seahawks, Sounders visit

The weather was glorious in Darrington, where about 400 kids, parents, and others flocked to the community center to spend time with a dozen Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders FC soccer players. The athletes signed autographs, took pictures, tossed footballs and kicked soccer balls.

The group included Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, who played catch with some of the youngsters.

“It’s tough to come around a tragic time like this,” Smith said. “To be able to offer a little bit of a release or a distraction from what’s going on, I mean, that’s all you can do.”

Mud up to 60 feet deep

The draining of water from the sodden earth Monday has allowed workers finally to begin creating a meaningful grid search of the debris fields, Burke said.

The grid is not your typical one of string and pegs delineating the territory to be covered. It is measured in three dimensions by U.S. Geological Survey technology. They are documenting the ground covered by searchers and their dogs as well as the debris depth. In places, it is piled up to 80 feet.

Last week, it was tricky for searchers to know where they had been. Traditional landmarks were erased by the slide and muddy ponds made it hard to see and understand the contours of the earth beneath.

Some areas will take much longer than others to survey. A recent USGS map showed several large patches where the mud is still believed to be more than 60 feet deep and too dangerous to explore up close and with heavy machinery. Those areas cover about 30 percent of the more than 300 acres where the search is under way.

A new quarter-mile access road, paved with rip rap, has united the east and west side slide areas and is helping searchers previously divided by the elements, Burke said. The road was built in a week with crews working around the clock to improve access for the emergency crews.

“It is a lifeline for this operation,” Burke said.

Economic impact

In his 14-page letter to the president, Inslee quantifies some of the impacts beyond the toll of dead and missing.

That includes more than 40 destroyed homes and 30 families in need of long- and short-term housing.

The governor’s letter pegs property losses at about $10 million, including homes and belongings.

With per-capita incomes in Oso averaging about $15,800 — about half the state average — the community already lagged economically.

Now things are immeasurably worse.

Highway 530, the principal economic lifeline for the Darrington area, had debris burying 6,000 feet of roadway. Although work on its resurrection has begun, it remains blocked for the foreseeable future.

People who need to travel between Darrington and areas west of Oso must take a detour of two hours in each direction via Highway 20, or the partially gravel Mountain Loop Highway

Detours put the survival of 300 jobs in jeopardy at the Darrington’s largest employer, Hampton sawmill, Inslee noted in his letter.

Survivors from the slide area face huge economic challenges.

Many who owned destroyed homes may be out of luck when it comes to insurance compensation, Inslee’s letter says. Standard homeowner policies don’t cover landslides, mudflow or flooding. Many didn’t have mortgage insurance, either, meaning they’ll have to keep making payments for houses that no longer exist.

On Monday, county planners created a web page that posts maps, permits and other government records documenting the history of the homes in the landslide area.

The same hillside has slid several times during the past century. When it gave way on Jan. 25, 2006, debris dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River and came to within about 400 feet of existing homes. The county received no reports of houses sustaining damage. The county performed emergency work to protect the area from flooding.

In 2006 and 2007, the county issued permits for six homes that would later be destroyed in the deadly landslide, county planners reported. The county in 2012 issued another permit to replace a mobile home in the slide area. The county says the newer homes were all 500 to 2,300 feet away from the slope left by the 2006 slide.

While experts had warned of the potential for a catastrophic slide of about 900 feet, the March 22 slide extended about 4,400 feet, spanning the valley floor and partially climbing the south side.

Symbol of resilience

On Monday, two prominent American flags hung within the gaping boundaries of the search area.

One large new flag rippled in the breeze above the searchers. It was attached to a tall cedar tree that somehow survived the slide. Volunteers cut off its branches to raise Old Glory to a somber half staff.

The other flag was displayed in front of a makeshift supply tent. Muddy and tattered, the relic was recovered from the rubble. Near the seam separating the field of stars from its stripes was a large hole.

To Burke, the firefighter from Bellevue, the flag is a symbol of resilience, and why searchers’ work is so important for the families.

Burke can’t say when the search will end.

“That’s the million-dollar question, how long this operation could go,” Burke said. “It’s just hard to say.”

Inslee’s request for aid

Inslee’s letter specifically asks the federal government to help local and tribal governments in four areas related to the disaster:

  • Disaster housing, which provides up to 18 months of aid.
  • Disaster grants, which help people pay for disaster-related needs such as replacing personal property, transportation, medical, dental and funeral expenses.
  • Unemployment insurance benefits for those who are unemployed as a result of the slide.
  • Crisis counseling for slide survivors, responders, and others who have been affected.
  • Authorizing the U.S. Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program, which also helps provide low-interest loans to help homeowners and renters with uninsured property losses.

On March 24, President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration enabling the federal government to send out disaster teams, specialized personnel and equipment.

Scott North contributed to this story.

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