Second-guessing, criticism puts grieving families last

You may notice the daily media briefings on the Oso mudslide getting shorter and tenser with less said and more questions asked.

As unanswered questions pile up, some of those chronicling the disaster are losing patience. So are some of those entrusted with trying to sort things out.

One flashpoint has been a push to get names of those killed or missing released to the public, though not everyone in the public may want it out.

Another source of stress has been stories giving voice to second-guessers of the response even while grief-stricken families await word of their loved ones.

Such tension is no surprise; it just seems to be occurring sooner than one might expect.

Generally coverage of disasters tends to follow a pattern. At first, the focus is on telling what happened and describing the emergency response. Next come tales of heroism, profiles of survivors and portraits of victims. Eventually, reporting will fix on how well government forces reacted and the causes of this horrific event.

Criticism tends to emerge in the later phases. The magnitude of this tragedy, with the search for victims expected to take weeks, has disrupted everything.

It is not crystal clear-when it is OK to dial back on chronicling the response and to begin unraveling whether there are parties at fault.

Nor is there a bright line between seeking details of the lives of those who’ve died and what constitutes invading the personal space of their survivors.

As a result, in the course of this week, those spearheading the rescue efforts in the field and the operations centers found themselves discussing matters probably few Arlington and Darrington residents felt needed addressing with so many people left to be found.

Old scientific studies spurred questions about what Snohomish County leaders knew of the potential hazards of river flooding and hillside failure, and when they knew it.

Frustrated residents and politicians had John Pennington, head of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, on his heels explaining why the county didn’t request assistance sooner from the Washington National Guard.

Common sense says such lines of inquiry can be investigated fully later. But common sense can disappear quickly in a pressure-cooker of international attention.

Early in the week I started asking questions on these subjects but felt reticent to publish the answers because it felt too soon.

Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, didn’t feel so inhibited and decided to trash-talk the performance of government forces coordinating the response. I couldn’t ignore her and it’ll be up to her constituents to decide this fall if her performance this week merits another term.

And when Major Gen. Bret Daugherty, the commander of the Washington National Guard, called it a “terrible mistake” to second-guess Pennington’s decision, the observation was worth sharing for exploration later.

Things came to a head at Friday morning’s media briefing, which ended with a rebuke of some media members pressing for additional details about the names and number of the dead and missing.

Families have been advised of the process and getting out the information, Everett police Lt. Robert Goetz said.

“They understand it, so I hope you do,” he told reporters.

Families are still the story of the Oso mudslide — and the other questions can wait.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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