Time for the hard questions

Thirty-four years ago, President Jimmy Carter asked Gov. Dixy Lee Ray what the federal government could do to help after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Ray literally spelled it out.

“M-o-n-e-y,” she said.

Sunday’s visit by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate was an opportunity to survey the magnitude of the horror and underline the need for federal resources (see m-o-n-e-y, above.) Johnson said residents affected need to register with FEMA to qualify for federal assistance. Registering with the feds seems an unnatural reflex for the self-reliant souls of Darrington, Oso and Arlington. They should do it anyway.

Today, crews begin building a gravel berm to sluice water from Highway 530. So much work, so much ruin.

From the air, the slide mimics the lahars of Mount St. Helens, a mega natural disaster. What is Oso? Likely a confluence of geology, rains, perhaps logging. We don’t know. Asking why is natural; it also tiptoes around the theme of Russell Banks’ tragic novel, “The Sweet Hereafter” ­­— the irresistible need to blame.

Washington must review likely causes, even if the answers are reduced to basic physics. The state also needs to examine the emergency response and brainstorm prevention, including an inventory of current threats.

In the short term, the emphasis must be on recovery and helping those hit hardest. But soon, perhaps by the end of April, Gov. Jay Inslee will need to appoint a commission to dig into the policy implications: the how, the whys, and the why-not’s.

Turf-conscious politicians adulterate commission outcomes. That must not happen with Oso. A commission limited to non-political actors such as first responders, public policy professionals, scientists and land-use experts, is in the public interest. Only two elected officials who viscerally understand Oso’s impact, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, should participate. Former White House Cabinet member William Ruckelshaus, a leader with a command of policy and watershed science, would be an ideal commission chair.

One common-sense reform doesn’t require a commission’s review to move forward. As The Herald’s Rikki King reports, Gold Bar fire Chief Eric Andrews, charged with asking for a statewide mobilization of firefighters, was denied help. The reason? A state statute that limits callouts to fires exclusively. It’s a legal anachronism that needs to be amended.