By Jerry Cornfield and Rikki King Herald Writers
OSO — President Barack Obama plans a visit to Oso on April 22 to meet with families of those killed in a deadly mudslide and view the devastating effects of the disaster on the surrounding communities.
Obama’s visit will coincide with the one-month anniversary of the mudslide that killed at least 35 people, destroyed 30 homes and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to buildings and public facilities.
The president also will meet with first responders and those involved in the rescue and recovery efforts, the White House announced.
“I’m grateful for him to be here and to see the site,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said. “This is a very important thing for us. The magnitude and power of that slide is so enormous; to understand the gravity of it can only be done in person.”
Staff members of the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Jay Inslee have been talking with White House officials in recent days on when a visit might take place.
Obama called U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., on her cellphone just before 11 a.m. (8 a.m. PST) to tell her his plans.
“I’m glad he’s going to be able to come out and meet with the families. It will be great for the community,” she said. “Coming out earlier might have been disruptive.”
Inslee said the president has closely monitored events “and shown his concerns for the victims and their families. He and his team have been important partners in the response effort, and I believe this visit will strengthen those ties as we face the tough work ahead.”
Marla Skaglund, of Darrington, said she quickly spread the news with a post on her Facebook page.
Initially, a few people responded with negative comments about the president’s intentions. Most people commenting later want the president to see the damage, she said.
“I think (Obama) has planned it just right. They’ll welcome him,” she said. “People want him to see it and to know what we’re going through.”
That’s how Kevin Ashe, one of the owners of the IGA Grocery in Darrington feels.
“We will welcome the president for sure. It’s good for our leader to know how much a disaster this is and will be for our community for a long time,” he said.
The president needs to hear how critically important it is to get Highway 530 reopened, Ashe said.
It is also important the president leave with an understanding of how this tragedy has forged a bond between Darrington, Oso and Arlington.
“I think he will see three communities just now getting to the point where some people can cry about it and some people can think about it,” he said. “I think he will see how dedicated people are to making sure every body is found and every family has closure.”
Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert echoed the sentiment.
“It’s hard to be around Arlington and Darrington and not to get a sense of what the community spirit here is like,” she said.
In his tenure, Obama has gone to where most of the significant disasters have occurred in the country.
“It seems to be who he is and where his heart is at,” said the Rev. Timothy Sauer, of Immaculate Conception Church Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.
“I think it is a meaningful gesture,” he said of the upcoming visit. “That is an appropriate role for a president to take.”
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday publicly identified the slide’s 31st victim, Brooke Spillers, 2. The agency still is working to identify four of the dead. A total of 11 people are officially listed as missing.
Highway 530 between Darrington and Arlington remains closed indefinitely. The earliest estimate for reopening so far is still measured in weeks.
State transportation officials hope to begin meeting with survivors and victims’ families this week, said Linea Laird, a chief construction engineer with WSDOT.
They need to meet with the families and representatives of local tribes before discussing when the road might reopen, she said. There might be some public meetings as well.
Work to reopen the highway must be conducted in a way that’s sensitive to human loss and can be “one step in the healing process,” she said.
Crews made progress Tuesday on a temporary berm being constructed to move water out of the area of C-Post Road on the Darrington side of the slide, said Owen Carter, deputy public works director for Snohomish County. The construction has now moved past the road and into deeper floodwaters, he said.
Searchers have reasons to focus recovery efforts there, where water has covered more than 30 acres since the slide.
A new state incident-management team is scheduled to arrive Wednesday and take over command on Friday, said Bellevue fire Lt. Troy Donlan. The current team has been working since March 29.
This week, 20 FEMA search dogs continue to work at the site, drawn from 10 different states across the U.S. They are dogs trained in finding human remains. No additional search dogs are needed at this point, said Jim Ingledue, a FEMA search and rescue team member.
“We’ll continue to get out there all day, every day, until this is brought to a close,” he said.
This week FEMA intends to open Disaster Recovery Centers in Darrington and Arlington. The two centers are walk-in offices with staff equipped to answer questions about the kinds of help available to people affected by the slide.
Obama’s been closely involved in the federal response to the Oso disaster.
On March 24, he issued an emergency declaration enabling the federal government to send out disaster teams, specialized personnel and equipment.
He later expanded the declaration to allow local and state agencies and nonprofits to recover some of the funds spent on emergency response and debris removal.
And last week he issued a Major Disaster Declaration enabling individuals affected by the mudslide to receive federal assistance with housing, personal expenses and other needs.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.