Mudslide commission’s search for answers begins

OSO — Their job is to make sense of a disaster that left a gaping wound across the Stillaguamish Valley.

Near the end of their inaugural meeting Friday, members of an independent commission talked about what they want to learn from the March 22 Oso mudslide.

Within a few short months, they’re expected to make recommendations aimed at better emergency coordination for future disasters. Another goal is to improve building regulations near landslide hazards.

“To me, that’s the big hope — is that we can have some impact on public safety down the road,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor.

The commission’s inaugural meeting took place five months to the day after the slide hit at 10:37 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

The commissioners expect to confront questions about how the emergency response differed on the east and west sides of the disaster.

The slide killed 43 people. It buried the Steelhead Haven neighborhood along the North Fork Stillaguamish River and covered part of state Highway 530. It severed Darrington from the rest of Snohomish County and effectively split the slide response in two. Bad feelings over the discrepancy linger in Darrington, where loggers played a crucial role in the initial response, sometimes outside the official government-coordinated chain of command.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick announced the formation of the commission in July.

The group has a $150,000 budget — two-thirds of it from the state, the rest from the county.

The commission has a broad mandate, but it won’t explore who’s to blame for decisions that could have put slide victims in harm’s way. That will be up to the courts, where litigation is under way.

The commission has nine more meetings ahead of them, the next one on Thursday evening. They’re under a mid-December deadline to produce a report with findings and recommendations.

The commissioners, by design, have varied backgrounds — and mostly come from outside Snohomish County. They include police and fire chiefs, emergency managers, scientists and a former longtime state real estate commissioner.

Their meeting Friday afternoon was in downtown Everett.

Their morning, however, began with a trip to the disaster zone.

“One of those things where you just get quiet and listen,” said Paul Chiles, the commissioner with the real estate background.

With the eroded 600-foot-high scarp in the background, Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies recounted the chaotic early phases of the response. At first, they didn’t know which direction the slide had come from, or the extent of the destruction.

Rescuers found all of the survivors in the slide zone on the first day. Searchers eventually recovered all of the dead, the last one on July 22.

“It is a tremendous testament to the hard work of many, many people,” Arlington Rural Fire Chief Travis Hots said.

Almost all of the bodies, destroyed houses and personal belongings wound up near the periphery of the slide debris, in two areas on the east and west sides.

County public works director Steve Thomsen described treacherous conditions early on: “thick mud, like oatmeal, very difficult to negotiate.”

It was “very easy to go up to your hips in a heartbeat,” said David Schonhard, a county operations manager who oversees solid waste.

County, state and federal agencies worked to build a berm to protect the east side of the search area, near where the Stillaguamish River backed up, forming a lake.

Fears persisted about the river bursting through the mass of soil from the slide, threatening emergency workers and homes downstream. It never did. Hydrologists predicted the water would cut a new channel through the debris, and it did.

Back in Everett, commissioners talked about what questions they need to ask — and who might be able to answer them.

Their work is being coordinated by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a public policy institute at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The commission plans to share relevant documents on its website. Anybody can attend the meetings, which are subject to state public meeting and records laws.

Kathy Lombardo, a geologist who leads the commission, knows they have an awesome responsibility. She wants survivors to be proud of what they produce. She wants all of Washington to learn from it.

“I want this to really mean something,” Lombardo said. “I want us to come up with tangible recommendations that can be taken forward.”

And, she added, “I’m not into doing reports that sit on shelves.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Meetings

An independent commission examining the Oso mudslide is scheduled to meet nine more times. Unless otherwise noted, all meetings are in the Port Gardner Room of the Everett School District’s administration building at 3900 Broadway.

Thursday, 5-8 p.m.

Sept. 10, 5-8 p.m.

Sept. 18, 5-8 p.m. (meeting location TBD, likely in the Stilly Valley)

Sept. 30, 6-9 p.m.

Oct. 2, 5-8 p.m.

Oct. 13, 5-8 p.m.

Oct. 20, 5-8 p.m.

Nov. 4, 5-8 p.m.

Dec. 2, 5-8 p.m.

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