By Scott North and Rikki King Herald Writers
OSO — As Snohomish County spends millions of dollars for crews to remove giant piles of debris left by the Oso mudslide, some are questioning whether enough is being done to find the lone victim still missing in the disaster.
The problem for the county: How much more is even possible?
Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper sent a letter to county officials Thursday, detailing concerns he’s hearing from his neighbors. Some are wondering if more resources should be directed at finding Kris Regelbrugge. Of the 43 people known to have died in the March 22 slide, she is the only person whose body has not been found.
Since the slide, the need to search the debris for human remains, and the urge to move into recovery mode, have at times been in conflict.
Crews hired by the county are now breaking down and sifting through some 200,000 cubic yards of dirt and debris piled up earlier by searchers.
People close to the slide are concerned they are “not doing anything to dig for Kris, just the basic minimum that is required by FEMA,” Harper said Thursday.
The county Public Works Department is in charge of debris removal. Search and recovery operations are the responsibility of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
The $6.4 million job underway now is focused on removing the debris placed on private land by search and recovery teams, said Gary Haakenson. He’s the county manager assigned by Executive John Lovick to oversee mudslide recovery efforts.
“Our goal has been all along to be as respectful and methodical as we can as we are sifting through the debris,” Haakenson said.
For more than a month after the slide, up to 1,000 searchers crawled over the site, looking for victims. The active search was suspended in late April, but spotters have stood watch, first as crews excavated Highway 530 and now as the debris piles are broken down.
Sheriff Ty Trenary said his department has quietly deployed people back to the slide area on more than a half dozen occasions in recent months. In each instance, their mission was to follow up on what were considered promising clues about Regelbrugge’s location, Trenary said. Searchers earlier located a number of victims using scientific projections of the debris flow and trajectory lines. Locals also helped pinpoint successful searches for their neighbors, a conversation that often was more direct than diplomatic.
So far, searches for Kris Regelbrugge, 44, have been unsuccessful, though materials recovered during one of the visits have been sent for genetic testing, Trenary said.
Her husband, John, also was killed. His body was recovered.
“We still want to find Kris and we want to do everything we can,” Trenary said. He wasn’t sure Thursday what options remain.
Crews with heavy equipment are expected to be working 10-hour days in the slide area through September.
They began in the southwest corner of the debris field where there is reason to believe Regelbrugge may be. Workers began moving elsewhere on the site late this week.
The work has been conducted using protocols to maximize the likelihood of recovering any human remains, Haakenson said. So far, only animal bones have been found, but in each instance work has stopped until that could be confirmed, he said.
Harper said the plan for this round of debris sifting and searching initially sounded good but he and others are disappointed that crews haven’t been excavating after removing the debris piles. The area where the crews have been working was buried in mud about 25 feet deep.
The fire chief said he’s talked to several county leaders. Some in the community have floated the idea of a change-order to the contract to have crews dig deeper.
So far, that idea has gone nowhere, Harper said.
With the amount of money already being spent, it shouldn’t be that much more of an investment for another week or two of work, focused on digging deeper, Harper said.
If money is the hold-up, county officials should acknowledge that, so the community can help find the solutions, Harper said.
“They’re doing the right thing, they’re just not going deep enough, and there needs to be a reason, and I don’t think any reason they come up with is going to be good enough,” he said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org.