A commission and a calling

Friday marked the five-month anniversary of the deadliest U.S. landslide in recorded history. At 8 a.m. at the Oso firehouse, Kathy Lombardo, a geologist and former Gates Foundation executive heading the joint commission to investigate the slide, quoted a Tibetan adage cited by the Dalai Lama. “Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. If we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”

It was akin to a benediction, tailored to the first official gathering of the Joint SR 530 Commission.

Few places are more emblematic of personal courage and keeping faith than the Stillaguamish Valley.

On a field visit, commissioners stood below the 700-foot scarp with the din of excavators and earthmovers, using their imaginations to conjure a hellscape. Here, “Lake Oso” flowed, formed by the slide. Here stood the de-watering pits, the trenches, the up-to-your hips field of oatmeal mud. Below is the hydro-seeding to stabilize the ground; here’s where the archaeologists sifted the slurry, processing personal items — toys, clothes — along with human remains.

With initial reports of flooding and a rooftop in the middle of SR 530, first responders such as Fire Dist. 21 Chief Travis Hots couldn’t determine the slide’s origin. Help required improvising, particularly for those cut off on the east side.

As Darrington Councilman Kevin Ashe, who owns the IGA grocery store, reminded commissioners during the public comments period, loggers played an essential role, sidestepping permission and protocols to retrieve their neighbors and friends. It’s one of the factors the commission needs to integrate into its analysis: The human element over the first two and a half days, which can’t be flow-charted on a white board.

There are oceans of data — even competing timelines — to shoehorn into a final report. The challenge will be to produce meaningful recommendations while tiptoeing over questions of cause, fault or liability (per the commission’s operating principles, it can’t “act as a substitute for the courts in any way.”) The touchstone will be advocating prevention policies with teeth.

“To me, that’s the big hope — is that we can have some impact on public safety down the road,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor.

As the commission ramps up, fundraising winds down. United Way of Snohomish County and the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation together have raised more than $4.5 million, and distributed $3 million for specific efforts such as the North Counties Family Services in Darrington and the Arlington Family Resource Project, passing support directly to the people affected.

Hats off to them, hats off to all endeavoring to give back.

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