Millions spent after Oso mudslide, but generosity can’t be measured

OSO — Everything is tallied in tidy columns.

The billings account for most of the $23.5 million Snohomish County spent after the March 22 Oso mudslide devoured a neighborhood and swallowed a mile of state highway.

Behind each of the invoices — hundreds in all — is a story.

Follow the money and it leads to conversations with loggers in black suspenders over plates of enchiladas. It traces 26,000 pounds of dirty laundry. Receipts document the $17,200 donation made by Darrington-based Hi Line Helicopters. The company provided air support at the slide and chose not to charge for 86 hours its birds were on standby.

The paper trail sheds light on the contributions made by many mom-and-pop companies from the upper Stillaguamish Valley to help the community recover. Scan the vendor list and find Spanky’s Trucking, Roggenbuck Timber and Mr. HaulKing Recycling and Excavation. The county made the slide-spending information available in response to a public records request.

What the invoices can’t provide is context: the financial risks taken by small companies with little wiggle room and an overwhelming desire to help. Also missing, for that matter, is evidence of the reluctance some of those people still have about being recognized for their work — or even being paid at all.

The road

Third-generation Darrington logger Steve Skaglund was working in the shop at 3 Rivers Cutting when the news reached him that soggy morning.

First came word that the Kuntz house west of town had been destroyed.

Then a call from Bruce Blacker on the Oso side: The Gullickson home was gone, the Ellsworths’, gone. And the vacant old Baker house with the blue tarp on the roof — well, it was in the middle of the highway.

The slide came within 300 feet of Skaglund’s boyhood home.

That Saturday, Skaglund surveyed the destruction and joined the search for survivors from the Darrington side.

That Sunday and Monday, he and others looked for the dead and helped carry them from the rubble.

Darrington was cut off. Highway 530 was buried. It would take months and more than $35 million for the state to re-establish the link. By midweek, Skaglund turned his attention to a powerline road that rose above the south edge of the slide.

The word “road” might have been overstating the powerline corridor. To Skaglund, it seemed more like a slimy single lane of grass with an impression of tire tracks. One state Department of Transportation supervisor described it in his notes as a “goat path.”

Most people in Darrington commute to jobs “down below” — the term locals use for everything west of the close-knit timber town with Tar Heel roots. Skaglund knew the struggles many faced to pay their mortgages each month. It was hard enough scraping by without adding hefty gasoline bills and an extra 80-minute or so detour each way through Skagit County.

The Seattle City Light route would have to do — not only for disaster workers but, in Skaglund’s mind, the whole town.

He and Jeff Anderson, a fifth-generation logger and one of 3 Rivers’ co-owners, knew their paying jobs would have to wait.

Emergency workers overseeing rescue and recovery efforts initially rejected the legions of loggers volunteering their time and equipment to search the debris. Skaglund didn’t want to risk getting turned away on the road project. He and a small army of other locals started building it on their own.

“Sometimes,” Anderson said, “it is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

Skaglund explained to the rock haulers that they didn’t have government consent and there was no guarantee of getting paid. They told him that didn’t matter.

Skaglund also met up with Andy Reece, who’d grown up in Darrington. Reece has owned a road-building business for 17 years. He, too, had been drawn to the slide through personal connections.

The morning the hillside collapsed, Reece sent a text to Alan Bejvl, one of his equipment operators. He wanted to make sure he was OK. Bejvl, 21, never received the text. He and his fiance, Delaney Webb, 19, were killed in the slide along with 41 others.

Skaglund had a proposal for Reece. His crew would head west if Reece’s team would move east. They’d meet up in the middle. On the west side, that meant building a road through what amounted to a swamp.

“I kind of laughed at him,” Reece said. “I said, ‘Are you being serious?’”

Reece knew what he had to do.

“I called everybody I knew and 48 hours later we had a road through,” Reece said.

Skaglund did end up getting the permission he feared would be denied.

A representative from Seattle City Light, which had control of the right-of-way, assured Skaglund he would take any heat that may come his way.

As it turned out, Gary Ward, a state transportation department maintenance and operations superintendent, already had been looking for Skaglund. He knew his crew had the equipment, the skill, the knowledge and the connections to move fast.

Ward and others just needed convincing they could actually pull it off.

Approval for the project eventually caught up with the trucks and bulldozers. “It probably would have been a challenge to stop them,” Ward readily admits.

Sometime after midnight at the end of the second day of construction, Skaglund’s dozer met up with one from Reece’s crew. Beneath a bank of portable lights, the two men got out of their ‘Cats, shook hands and parted ways.

During the next month, workers widened and improved the two-mile stretch. They built 17 turnouts for rescue rigs to park and maneuver. By one calculation, the road took 42,000 tons of rock and crushed concrete that in places is more than 20 feet deep.

Skaglund spent 34 straight days working on the road and also searching the debris for neighbors.

At one point, 18 people, some of them strangers, bunked at his home. It was cozy and crowded with cots everywhere and plenty of hot casseroles, soup and stew on the stove.

Donated supplies rolled in at his logging company, unsolicited, filling up the carport. A freezer of meat, a pickup bed full of chainsaws, hundreds of gallons of hydraulic fluid.

“If you ever had a question about humanity, it was answered,” Skaglund said.

At Witsoe, Haug &Associates in Smokey Point, accountant Denise Baker fretted over the 3 Rivers books. The loggers had postponed jobs to work the slide. 3 Rivers took on the role as a primary contractor for the road project, paying the workers and equipment operators and pulling together all the invoices for the county. That saved the government a lot of work, but it also meant 3 Rivers was on the financial hook. Money was going out at roughly $5,000 to $7,000 a day, Baker said.

“Being in this office, I thought, ‘Will it survive?’”

Baker understood the need for the bypass — even before there were any guarantees the company would get paid. She grew up in Oso.

“It was a leap of faith,” she said. “But it was never a second thought.”

In the end, 3 Rivers and Reece Trucking and Excavating were made whole.

Between them, they were paid about $1.1 million. That money was divided among 29 subcontractors.

The bypass provided quicker access for searchers looking for the missing. It also re-opened Darrington to the world.

Documenting the disaster

When the slide hit, Diana Rose was the administrative finance program manager at the county’s Department of Emergency Management. She recently took a similar emergency management job at the city of Marysville.

Rose spent much of 2014 bringing order to the blizzard of paperwork necessary to make the Oso response eligible for federal and state disaster relief money.

If all goes according to plan, up to 87.5 percent of the county’s expenditure may be covered.

That’s meant preparing for multiple layers of review and audits by state and federal regulators.

Much of Rose’s work in the months after the slide was wrangling documents to prove how the money was spent. The paperwork shows many details, such as how many pairs of hip waders were bought. It explains why there was a need to contract for on-site decontamination showers. It justifies big-ticket costs, supported by time cards, payroll summaries and copies of union contracts. There also are mountains of minutae: $27.74 a pop for packages of nitrile gloves to protect workers’ hands; $11.34 for a set of O-ring fittings; $3.97 for hardware at Tacoma Screw.

Rose also found herself having to make personal visits to implore people and businesses in the Stilly Valley to submit paperwork detailing the financial hits they took when they stepped in to help their neighbors. To qualify for relief funds, the county must present an accurate accounting of all resources used to respond to the disaster, including donated time.

Many were humble about what they did and avoided compensation just as vigorously as they tried to steer clear of the limelight.

“I’ve met some really amazing people because of this disaster,” Rose said.

Dirty laundry

The emergency drew police and firefighters from across Snohomish County. Collectively, they submitted invoices documenting about $1.5 million in costs.

More than 40 local and state agencies from outside the county altogether billed $2.5 million. Close to $1.1 million in expenses were accrued by Washington Task Force 1, the highly trained disaster response team based in Pierce County that spent weeks finding victims in the mud. Nearly $350,000 in costs were reported by the Seattle Fire Department, which also had a significant presence at the scene. At least one Seattle firefighter later donated his slide pay to victims.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to small businesses.

The Monday after the slide, Brett McGhie headed to a community church in Arlington to see if he could help. He later drove to Darrington with donated supplies.

Two days later, the owner of Suds N Duds Laundry in Smokey Point got a call from an emergency worker on the Darrington side of the slide. He was told to bring his van.

McGhie figured he might be asked to wash a couple of loads of laundry each day, which he was more than happy to do.

The logistics folks at the command center had a bigger volume in mind.

He filled his 20-foot van from top to bottom and front to back with mud-coated clothing that had been worn by searchers.

“It blew me out of the water,” he said. “I wondered, ‘Am I biting off more than I can chew?’ I had never done anything bigger than this in my life.”

Volunteers, including many of his customers, were eager to help. Laundry donations poured in. His business sent out 184 thank-you cards, but McGhie knows he wasn’t able to identify everyone.

Eventually, McGhie signed a contract to handle the mounds of dirty duds. His 56 machines gurgled, swooshed, rinsed, rumbled, spun and tumbled nonstop before the assembly line of folding.

Suds N Duds was paid $18,377.57, according to an invoice.

In all, his company handled more than 26,000 pounds of dirty laundry. That doesn’t include the many loads it handled for slide victims.

Those were done for free.

In Everett, sales receipts were brisk at Whistle Workwear.

In one big buy, the county ordered 1,254 suits of PVC rain gear plus 58 pairs of thermal long underwear. The next day it bought 100 pairs of waterproof gaiters, designed to keep boots from filling with mud and other debris.

Whistle Workwear pressed suppliers in Seattle and Mukilteo to fill the orders.

It did close to $20,000 in sales but didn’t profit.

“We didn’t feel like making money off the disaster,” said Scot Deide, a north Everett man and co-owner of Whistle Workwear, which has outlets from Bellingham to Olympia. “We sold everything at cost so they could buy more.”

Hot meals, warm hearts

Thousands of people worked for the county during the mudslide, and they all needed to be fed.

Everett restaurateur Shawn O’Donnell knew Rose. Both serve on the local board for the American Red Cross. He asked Rose how he could help.

The county’s emergency operations center was running around the clock. It was clear from the start that a couple of pizzas weren’t going to cut it.

O’Donnell agreed to provide on-site catering, three meals a day, seven days a week. They were at it for a month and were paid about $53,000. Much of the food was provided at cost, Rose said. When everything was totalled, O’Donnell donated about $21,000 in goods and services, invoices show.

A long-term, around-the-clock catering service was something new for O’Donnell’s staff. He urged them to do a good job for people working 12- and 16-hour days, some of whom weren’t even going home at night.

Even the dishwashers felt they were contributing.

“I wanted us to have better food than ever before,” O’Donnell said. “They were paying for cold cuts and we were taking up salmon and steak.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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