After Oso, a new approach to emergencies: ‘Everybody jumps in’

OSO — All disasters begin and end at the local level.

In Oso, that holds true.

The scope of the March 22 mudslide — the destruction, the unknowns and the dangers of the mud — changed the unwritten rules of emergency response in Snohomish County.

For official searchers, it became clear early on that locals needed to be involved in the disaster response and recovery efforts. Much of that was unprecedented.

The change began from the earliest moments of the crisis, when locals disobeyed orders to stay out of the mud and continued to insist they would take part in the rescue and recovery efforts.

“And thank God they did,” Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said. “As I look back on this whole event, I think we’re changed in how we see community involvement in a natural disaster. The mentality that first responders show up and do the job has been replaced by, ‘No, it is a community event. Everybody jumps in.’

“You deal with those decisions afterward, but you don’t worry about whether somebody’s got a uniform on or not; you take the help and you go forward.”

People from Darrington and Oso had the skills, equipment and knowledge the officials needed. It took both sides a few days, and a few arguments, to come together.

Police officers, firefighters and government leaders are just now beginning to examine what worked well and what didn’t, and how they can apply those lessons in tackling future disasters.

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick has promised an independent review of what happened before and after the slide. On April 28, he announced that the county is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to create a task force or commission. Part of the group’s work would be to examine why the hill fell, and whether land use decisions played a role in the tragedy.

Lovick said he also wants a review of the emergency response after the slide.

The effort still is in the planning stages, with details being worked out with the governor’s office, Lovick spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said Friday.

For years now, there’s been a shift in emergency-management thinking, said Dan Good, with the Emergency Services Coordinating Agency that serves 10 cities and towns in south Snohomish County and north King County.*

Officials have recognized the need to identify people in the community who can help during a disaster, Good said. They also have more practice now in tracking those volunteers and resources, and keeping things organized.

The slide response was a reminder that the federal government can’t do everything after a disaster, Good said. It requires a “whole community approach.”

Good’s team of volunteers provided amateur or “ham” radio communication after the slide. They staffed emergency shelters and helped sort and protect personal property recovered from the mud, such as purses and wallets.

The slide was volunteer Bill Westlake’s 30th disaster response.

“It always amazes me how in all disasters, and I’ve been all over the United States for this, is how people come together,” he said. “That always amazes me.”

The response in Darrington was different from other disasters, because many folks there did not want outside help. They wanted to take care of their own, volunteer Tom Hawkins said.

“They say ‘Oso Strong,’ but let me tell you, Darrington is pretty strong too,” he said.

For Washington Task Force 1, an elite, federally funded team of police officers and firefighters from Pierce County, the slide was the first deployment in their home state.

Trenary requested the team’s assistance, but that couldn’t happen until the governor signed off on the plan.

Oso brought to light some gaps in the law and areas of emergency planning that could be improved, said task force leader and Pierce County sheriff’s Lt. Cynthia Fajardo.

The task force typically arrives at a scene and takes charge, said Parry Boogard, a technical search specialist and battalion chief with Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn.

Oso wasn’t like that.

They worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the friends and family of the missing and the dead. For many of them, it was an honor to be a part of that.

“The spirit that was out there was just amazing,” Boogard said.

They made sure folks had personal protective equipment, said Todd Magliocca, a Tacoma fire captain and task force supervisor. They knew if anyone got seriously hurt out there, it would just add more pain, and possibly guilt, for those working so hard.

“We were just a bunch of people there to help them organize,” Magliocca said.

The crews would get out of the mud and find hot water, razors, shaving cream and towels waiting for them at the Darrington Community Center. People took their laundry and brought it back clean, said Vance Tjossem, a hazardous materials specialist and Pierce County deputy.

The locals showed patience and endurance as leadership teams cycled through the incident command center, each bringing new, and sometimes conflicting, ideas and strategies for the search, Magliocca said.

For both sides, working together meant listening to what folks had to say.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Read more about the community’s response to the Oso mudslide in “The Rising.” The special report can be found online at www.heraldnet.com/therising.

Correction, June 2, 2014: The Emergency Services Coordinating Agency serves cities in south Snohomish County and north King County. Its service area was described incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

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