Obama here to listen, comfort

In the wake of tragedy, politics needs to fall away. One month after Oso’s landscape collapsed into a river of earth, leaving dozens dead, President Barack Obama will do what presidents do best: Bind the region’s wounds, comfort the grieving and commit the nation to disaster recovery.

Obama plans to thank first responders and meet survivors and the families of victims. From the air and on the ground, he will take in a mountain staircased in mud and snags that still entomb four people.

The alphabet soup of federal agencies, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is delivering. But even FEMA has limits, capping individual assistance at $32,000. The takeaway is something residents internalize, that government and nonprofits can help feed, shelter and rebuild, but they can’t make you whole. That takes a groundswell of neighbors and families helping one another, a spirit that transcends government. It’s a spirit that Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Suzan DelBene, County Executive John Lovick, Sen. Kirk Pearson, Rep. Dan Kristiansen, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and many other lawmakers seem to recognize.

Later this week, the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet, will join Sen. Maria Cantwell to meet with small businesses and civic leaders from Arlington and Darrington. A key message centers on the region’s main artery, Highway 530, and the imperative to rebuild.

The tax base that buoyed the Darrington and Oso fire districts was liquidated in less than a minute and may never be restored. The Snohomish County Volunteer Fire and Rescue helicopter team could disappear after losing its federal support. Tragedy comes full circle if the future of Oso’s first responders vanishes with the hillside.

On Monday, United Way of Snohomish County announced that it was distributing another $400,000 to groups in Arlington and Darrington. It is generosity that makes a difference. So does targeting resources. Local options for contract hiring by the Washington Department of Transportation shouldn’t be unnecessarily restricted by FEMA. Give priority to qualified local construction and building firms to invigorate the economy.

And invest in prevention. On Feb. 11, a Department of Natural Resources’ committee recommended to the Forest Practices Board that it develop a budget to acquire LiDAR (a kind of landscape-radar mapping) for improved screening of unstable slopes. After Oso, that seems an easy call.

The arc of recovery is long; now the hard, often tedious work begins.

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