Better response to disasters needed, panel on Oso told

OLYMPIA — Communities ripped asunder by the Oso mudslide are recovering, one tough day at a time.

And state resources are still very much needed by families and businesses coping with the emotional and financial toll of the deadly March 22 landslide, civic leaders told a state Senate panel Thursday.

New laws also are necessary to ensure a less bumpy response to disasters in the future than they experienced in those initial hours and days after Steelhead Haven was buried under mud on a quiet Saturday morning.

“It was pretty chaotic in the beginning,” Oso fire Chief Willy Harper told the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

Harper, Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and Pete Selvig of Darrington each described a system for emergency response that was overwhelmed by the circumstances.

Communication went down as most phone service was lost. A request to mobilize fire crews statewide was denied.

A command trailer for emergency responders arrived in Arlington and got sent back to Olympia, though it was needed on the Darrington side of the slide.

They all had something to share.

Harper said he tried to initiate a statewide wildfire-type mobilization but was rebuffed. Such a mobilization would not have saved lives but it would have enabled managing of the emergency to go smoother at the outset, he said.

“It is a system that works,” he said.

Selvig, a retired U.S. Forest Service technician, a former Darrington School Board member, and member of the rural community’s emergency response team, said there was an incident command team on the Arlington side of the slide before there was one on the Darrington side, fomenting confusion and a lack of coordination.

In the first three days he said he was a “nervous wreck” because it was unclear who was in charge of what. He couldn’t round up supplies for crews and volunteers and faced resistance from different authorities to his appeals for more body bags and portable toilets.

Rankin and Tolbert also shared their frustrations with trying to gather information they could share with residents.

“Communication is definitely at the top of my list,” Rankin said, noting residents looked to him to get their questions answered and he encountered much difficulty doing so early on.

Senators also heard from Kathy Lombardo, executive director of an independent commission examining emergency response and land-use decisions. It’s drafting recommendations to deliver Dec. 15 to Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick.

She didn’t discuss commission findings or preliminary recommendations.

But she said the panel’s goal is to decide “what recommendations if implemented today would make civilians safer tomorrow.”

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said he hoped they would look beyond landslides and be applicable in the event of any large-scale disaster.

“Hopefully we’ll put together solutions so all this dysfunction doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Afterward, Sen. Kirk Pearson said he expects the commission will make recommendations to improve the state’s incident management system.

“There were lessons learned from this,” he said. “I am prepared to do something.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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