First damage claims in Oso mudslide seek millions

EVERETT — A woman whose husband was killed when the Oso mudslide buried their home March 22 has filed claims against Snohomish County and the state of Washington, seeking millions of dollars in damages — and answers.

Deborah Durnell, 50, brought the claims as a first step in what likely will become a legal battle to learn exactly why the hill fell and what government officials knew about the risk to people living below, her attorney, Corrie Yackulic of Seattle, said Friday.

Thomas Durnell, 65, a retired carpenter, was at the home along Steelhead Drive when the slide crashed down. His death was confirmed April 2.

So far, 39 people are known to have died in the slide and four others remain missing.

The claims seek $3.5 million from the county and state. They’re the first formal damage claims to arise against area government in the mudslide’s aftermath.

Deborah Durnell, a certified nursing assistant at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, is pursuing the claims because litigation gives access to the power of the courts in compelling government to answer questions, Yackulic said.

The aim is to learn enough to spare others from similar pain, Yackulic said.

“She’s real clear: ‘I need to channel my grief in a productive way,’” she said of her client.

State and county officials on Friday had just begun their review of the claims. They had little to say with potential legal action pending.

“The claim has just come in and we’re sitting down to evaluate it,” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.

Unlike others who had lived for years at Steelhead Drive along the North Fork Stillaguamish River, the Durnells were relatively recent arrivals. They bought their home in 2011, county property records show. They were unaware of the history of slides from the hill above. Prior to March, the last major slide was in 2006.

“It was a beautiful spot, but if they had any idea about the risk or the history they wouldn’t have bought there,” Yackulic said of the Durnells.

The claim does not specify what actions by Snohomish County harmed the Durnell family. It does list a number of past and current county officials as having potentially important knowledge. Among those named is Aaron Reardon, who was county executive when building permits were issued for the home the Durnells later purchased.

The county issued building permits for the house in late 2005. Within a week of the 2006 slide, a county flood hazard planner deemed it safe to resume construction on the home, given its distance from the river, records show.

The hillside has for years been marked as a landslide risk area in county natural hazard plans, updated as recently as 2010. Studies for mitigating the risk of the slide in 2001 and 2004 considered buying out Steelhead Drive property owners, but the idea was given less urgency than removing homes endangered by Stillaguamish flooding.

Those same studies suggested any slide would likely travel 900 feet or less. The March 22 slide carried debris all the way across the valley and partway up the other side, roughly a mile away.

“We have an open mind. ‘Who knew what?’ is what we are trying to figure out,” Yackulic said.

The claim against the state says Peter Goldmark and Doug Sutherland, the current and former commissioners of public lands, both likely have information important to the case. It also raises the possibility that state-approved timber harvests played a role in the hillside’s collapse.

“In violation of its own regulations, the state in 2004 permitted and approved clearcutting within the groundwater recharge zone on the slope that failed,” the claim says.

The claim says a number of geological experts likely have information important to the case. Some of those named studied the hillside years ago and suggested it posed a risk to human life and property.

Since the slide, some experts have said that timber harvests may have played a role. Other geologists have said the slide more likely was the result of near-record rainfall in March and its effect on the Stilly valley’s steep, unstable glacial soils.

Yackulic serves on the board of the Western Environmental Law Center. That organization has no role in this case, she said.

Before assessing blame, Yackulic said she plans to get the most-qualified experts to study the site and to determine what occurred.

“That is how we are going to approach this,” she said.

Scott North: 425-339-3431, north@heraldnet.com

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