By Aya Walksfar
Nestled amid the foothills and the mountains of the North Cascades, the small town of Darrington — population 1,405 — appears untouched by the Highway 530 mudslide that obliterated the tiny community of Hazel, Wash., at 10:57 a.m. on Saturday, March 22.
Appearances are deceiving. The townspeople of Darrington struggle to meet the day to day challenges of an essentially landlocked area. With their main route of travel, Highway 530, blocked for the foreseeable future, these ordinary people struggle with the extraordinary issues of finding ways to commute the extra two to four additional hours – each way – to jobs and doctor’s appointments.
And they feel forgotten. What newscaster is calling out, “Darrington strong! Darrington proud! The Darrington Do-ers!”?
Nearly everything on the news yells, “Oso strong! Oso mudslide!” Yet, the town of Oso was affected only by the loss of loved ones to the mud. Oso is located west of the mudslide, and are not blocked from any of their normal activities. What they suffer is the emotional loss, just the same as many other towns in Washington: Darrington, Arlington, Bellingham, Puyallup, and even in Montana. Darrington is located east of the mudslide.
It was the tiny community of Hazel that the mud swallowed on that fateful morning.
While the townspeople of Darrington grieve for lost loved ones, they battle the misconception by the public that money is pouring into Darrington to help them in this time of need. The loudly touted relief of “gas cards for commuters” is not nearly the relief many believe it to be. The sad reality is that a commuting family will receive an initial $100 gas card and it will be reloaded only once a week at $60 from that point on. It does not matter if more than one family member must commute. That is all the assistance they will receive.
In a desperate effort to find more gas money, many families turn to the food bank. Last Saturday the food bank served 73 new families. The food bank’s resources, always stretched, are stretched even further. Many of the food deliveries wound up at the HUB in Arlington, a 85 mile trip one way. My wife and I took the journey yesterday to retrieve supplies for the Food Bank in our pick up truck.
Red Cross Counseling is for the immediate families of the victims, mother, father, siblings. Those in our town, stricken by grief for friends and neighbors do not have access to the Red Cross grief assistance.
The retired veteran who shuttles three friends to appointments at the VA Hospital drives an additional 85 miles one way to get to the point where he normally starts from on that already long and gas-costly journey. Since March 22, this older gentleman has received a total of $150 to help with the extra gas costs. He makes the journey between one and three times per week.
Beautiful thing happened recently, though: a little boy was visiting Darrington, having lunch at the Burger Barn, and he and his mother heard the old-timer talking. After they ate, the little boy walked up and handed the older gentleman a roll of bills. The older gentleman handed it back, but the mother said, “You are denying him the right to help.” The older man accepted the donation, and shook the young boy’s hand. After they left I heard him tell his friend, “Now I don’t have to worry where to get gas money for that appointment tomorrow.”
Many small business owners are wondering if they will survive the coming summer, usually their busy season. If the road doesn’t open, there will be no tourists; there will be no way to host the music festivals, the art shows that bring in hundreds of people from all over.
While the media continues to use the misnomer, “Oso mudslide,” don’t let it fool you. It was the Highway 530 Mudslide.
Words have power. Please, honor the tiny community of Hazel that once sat between the river and Highway 530 and was swallowed by the tidal way of mud, and the small town of Darrington that continues to feel the devastation of being isolated. Please, call the mudslide by its true name: The Highway 530 Slide.
Aya Walksfar lives in Darrington.