A hillside falls on our hearts

Like people everywhere we are holding our breath and hoping that the casualty count from the Oso mudslide does not continue to climb. But we are numbed by the real possibility that it may.

When conditions are dangerous enough that reasonable people flee, there still are many men and women whose jobs and sense of service send them into the maw of a disaster. Some are professional first-responders. Others are volunteers, organized or otherwise. Many are simply good neighbors who cannot sit at home when their help is needed.

The 15 million cubic yards of slurry and debris that crashed down on Highway 530 and the adjacent riverside has brought grief and anxiety to communities along the Stillaguamish. But it also has brought out an army of helping hands and caring hearts.

These are extraordinarily ordinary people who resolutely trudge through the muck looking for victims, who willingly help neighbors pick through the wreckage of their lives, and who warmly comfort families with material and emotional kindnesses. There’s no time for talk about heroism or charity. It’s just time to get down to the business of doing what they can.

Sacrifice and commitment reach their zenith during or immediately after a calamity like this one. The need is raw and our response is often instinctive. Yet, there will be as many physical, emotional and policy needs in the weeks and months ahead as exist today.

Some challenges will be emotional. People have lost family members and other loved ones. Neighbors have lost trusted friends. Youngsters have endured a sudden, harsh lesson about unforeseen loss. Schools, churches, mental health professionals and compassionate community leaders all have their work cut out.

Other challenges will be physical and financial. How much labor and how much money (not to mention, how much paperwork) will it take to restore or replace the homes and possessions that were broken and buried in this mudslide? Reports from Louisiana, Oklahoma and Southern California continue to describe neighborhoods and human lives still not restored following hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

The long-term challenge is one of public policy — deciding what to do about those hills, that highway and the Stillaguamish River. The hillside that crumbled on Saturday morning also clogged the river with a mudslide in 2006. Nature will not heal the hillside, nor will it deter the undercutting currents of the river. Governments can forge policies only to control things like highways and housing developments, specifically where and how they are built.