DARRINGTON — Things are finally settling down at the Darrington IGA, a family-owned store that became an information hub, a food and water provider, and a place to gather and pitch in after the Oso mudslide.
“We’re as close to normal as we could hope to be,” co-owner Kevin Ashe said. “But it’ll never really be normal again.”
Kevin and his wife, Sheila, got a call March 22 from their son-in-law. There had been a slide, he said. It was bad.
“But we really couldn’t wrap our heads around it,” Kevin said.
Then they saw pictures of the fallen hillside and the muddy debris where homes once stood. With volunteers and first responders searching the mud and more rescuers on the way, they started making sandwiches, cooking chicken and rounding up water bottles and warm drinks.
People began showing up at the store, looking for information or just wanting to talk.
The slide killed 43 people, swept away a neighborhood and buried a stretch of Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington.
“It’s hard to describe it,” Kevin said. “It was an emotional, hectic, difficult situation that we were in. But we all knew we had a job to do and we weren’t waiting on anybody else to do it.”
Earlier this week, the Washington Food Industry Association recognized Kevin, Randy and Sheila Ashe and the Darrington IGA for their efforts after the slide. The family received WFIA’s Community Service Award in a surprise ceremony Wednesday afternoon.
It’s the first time community service has been separate from the association’s overall Grocer of the Year award. The group has been around for 115 years and recognizes grocers and vendors annually, President Jan Gee said.
“The beauty of a community-based grocer is that they can do things really no one else could,” Gee said. “The neighborhood grocery store is a great asset to any community because they become that hub in a crisis. What the Darrington IGA did for their community makes their community stronger.”
The store provided meals, drinks and daily updates for people, Gee said. Tyler Myers of the Myers Group, a retail, real estate and property management company on Camano Island, nominated the Ashes for the award. The WFIA Board of Directors made the final selection.
Kevin doesn’t want to diminish the value of the award, but he refuses to take much credit for the recovery efforts.
“It’s humbling and I feel honored to get this award, but I feel somewhat guilty that we were honored before those loggers in town who really did the heavy lifting,” he said. “We did our part. Everybody in Darrington did their part. That’s what we do. But what we did was so much less than the loggers and rescuers.”
He also applauded the store’s 20 employees. Some volunteered for search and rescue efforts while others put in extra hours helping at the store or feeding the search teams.
“Our employees are the best people in the world,” Kevin said. “They worked long hours. Whatever needed to be done, they did it. We couldn’t have done any of this without them.”
The Darrington IGA has been family-owned for more than 40 years. Brothers Kevin and Randy took over the business from their parents.
In the past few months, the Ashes have hosted fundraisers for other communities struggling after disasters. They donated money and supplies to Eastern Washington towns hit by wildfires this summer. When a landslide killed three people near Collbran, Colorado, the Ashes stepped up again.
“You see that and you know what it feels like and you want to do something,” Kevin said.
The IGA sold pulled pork sandwiches and collected contributions, bringing in more than $1,000 for the Colorado relief efforts.
The Ashes plan to continue hosting fundraisers and meetings as needed. They also hope to regain a sense of normalcy. The past half year has been hard, Kevin said, and he wants to do normal things and focus on the future.
“In the last seven months, not a day goes by that I haven’t thought of something about the slide,” Kevin said. “I think it’s like that for everyone in town. You see things that trigger memories, or someone says something, or it’s just the first thing on your mind when you wake up, hoping the families are OK and being taken care of or that the work on the highway is going well.”
The months after the slide showed the true character of people in the Stillaguamish Valley, he said. People outside of the community also rallied to help.
“There were so many people who came to our aid,” Kevin said. “You just can’t thank people enough who stepped up in the midst of that tragedy and did something, whether it was buying an espresso for someone or the big corporations donating thousands of dollars. People really came through.”
Kari Bray: kbray @heraldnet.com; 425-339-3439.