Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert hugs Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson (left) after a ceremony with Washington State overnor Jay Inslee and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin (background) in April 2014. Tolbert has placed the North Stillaguamish Valley Economic Redevelopment Plan in every office at Arlington City Hall. The brainstorming that started during a disaster has become her city’s road map.

Oso: 2 years on, many contribute to the region’s future

DARRINGTON — Mayor Dan Rankin can’t remember everyone who was there.

There were at least eight people around the table in his 14-by-20-foot office at Darrington City Hall. There may have been more, perhaps up to a dozen. It’s hard to keep track of all the names and faces in the blur of meetings, briefings and conversations that followed the disaster.

At that point, early mornings bled into sleepless nights.

It had been two or three weeks since March 22, 2014 — the morning a mudslide roared across the Stillaguamish Valley near Oso, killing 43 people and burying Highway 530 in mire and debris.

The group in Rankin’s office began the conversation about a future that seemed far away, obscured by the chaos and the grief and the mud.

They talked about what to do if the highway couldn’t be reopened for a year or more and how to restore reliable communication across the valley. Lawmakers wanted to know what bureaucratic hurdles needed to be cleared. Economic development organizations broached the topic of reviving struggling businesses and tackling unemployment in the valley, problems that predated the slide by years.

It wasn’t a long meeting, but the conversation kickstarted a plan that was assembled over 18 months with help from dozens of people across the state. That could win the cities $3 million in a national competition.

The meeting

The early days run together. That first planning meeting was sometime before April 13, according to notes Rankin kept during those long, exhausting weeks.

The notebooks are in his oak desk. The pages take him back to the raw emotion of his community banding together after sudden loss and unanswered questions. Rankin, a thoughtful man comfortable in jeans and work boots, is a part-time mayor and runs a small mill in this town of 1,400. His grandfather moved to Darrington in 1920 and his family has been there since.

Bob Drewel, the former Snohomish County executive, organized the meeting in Rankin’s cramped office. He’d been rallying people who could help Rankin and Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert think about their communities’ futures with hope.

Drewel has worn many other hats over the years, including Everett Community College president, Puget Sound Regional Council executive director and WSU interim chancellor for its North Puget Sound campus.

He also was just another local wanting to do his part. From his rural Arlington home, he’d witnessed the dramatic change in the flows of Stillaguamish River after the slide. He reached out to the mayors, whom he knew well and respected.

“There was sadness. There was grief,” Drewel said. “There was the sense of loss, but there was also this sense that something could be achieved.”

Tolbert remembers Drewel asking if the mayors had thought about what came next.

“It was an adjustment Dan and I had to make right then,” she said. “Our heads were so down in this tragedy.”

Tolbert is a longtime volunteer and second-term mayor in her city of nearly 19,000. She’s a pilot and directs the city’s largest annual event, the Arlington Fly-In.

Nothing could have prepared the mayors for the mudslide. They wedged time to talk about the future among search-and-recovery updates, plans to rebuild the highway and talks with families who were shocked, angry and grieving.

“This was happening when we were still finding people. This was happening when the search-and-rescue operation was in full swing,” Rankin said. “But this was important. We had to bring these people together. We had to be on the move out of the gate.”

The highway reopened in May. The final body was recovered in July, 18 feet underground.

That’s when Tolbert and Rankin say they truly were ready to start asking questions. What could they do to improve their towns and bring in more jobs? After devastation, could the valley’s rural communities come back stronger?

The plan

Those questions expanded into a 152-page document: the North Stillaguamish Valley Economic Redevelopment Plan. Photos, maps and diagrams share pages with numbered, color-coded lists of goals.

Tolbert keeps a copy in every office at Arlington City Hall. The brainstorming that started in the middle of a disaster has become her city’s roadmap.

It’s a long wish list. City leaders hope to ease access and traffic flow on highways 530 and 531, convince Community Transit to expand bus service and work toward paving the last 14 dirt and gravel miles of the Mountain Loop Highway. Airports in both towns need work, a longer runway in Arlington and more traffic in Darrington for recreation or wildland firefighting.

The challenges differ across the Stilly Valley.

In Darrington, the focus is on the area’s natural surroundings. The outdoor recreation industry could be boosted by finishing the Whitehorse Trail that parallels Highway 530, adding snow parks for winter fun at Gold Mountain and Whitechuck Bench Pit, and reopening the Green Mountain and North Mountain fire lookouts.

Darrington also has a long history with logging, and the industry’s struggles. Rankin is part of a team looking into cross-laminated timber, a new type of lumber processing where wood is cross-layered in a way that backers say can make it as strong as steel. Pieces for construction projects can be shipped out and assembled like Legos. With help from universities and timber experts, Darrington could become an anchor for the new type of lumber in the U.S., Rankin said.

Darrington’s part of the plan also focuses on using the outdoors to teach science and technology to its young people, a program spearheaded by the Glacier Peak Institute, and embraced by locals in part because it is called “No child left inside.”

For Arlington, the plan turns toward expanding local manufacturing and drawing new stores to town while buoying existing businesses. A key initiative would put in new roads around the Arlington-Marysville Manufacturing Industrial Center.

Tolbert wants to promote the 4,091-acre industrial center. About 170 companies — a third of them aerospace — are there now, employing 4,600 people. Planners say the center one day could anchor nearly 78,000 jobs.

The plan includes the unincorporated hamlet of Oso. It suggests lowering the speed limit on Highway 530 through residential areas, adding crosswalks near hubs like the Oso General Store and finding a spot to reopen a mid-valley post office.

The contest

Arlington and Darrington are semifinalists in a national competition for $100,000 this year and a chance at a $3 million grand prize next year. It’s called the America’s Best Communities contest. They’re being judged on their plan for the Stillaguamish Valley.

Originally, Arlington and Marysville were teaming up for the competition, sponsored by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel. After the slide, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring bowed out to let Darrington participate.

“We just felt that there was more of a need for them to go after that grant … that was the right thing to do,” Nehring said. “It was best for the county and the region for Darrington to step in.”

In April 2015, the Darrington-Arlington partnership was chosen as one of 50 quarterfinalists in the contest. They won $50,000 to draft a plan to boost business and quality of life in the Stilly Valley.

Planners and consultants winnowed the economic redevelopment plan into a 25-page Arlington and Darrington Community Revitalization Plan. That effort earned a spot among 15 semifinalists, culled from 138 applications representing nearly 350 communities in 27 states.

The America’s Best Communities semifinals are scheduled April 26-27 in Durham, N.C. Tolbert, Rankin and Drewel have 10 minutes to make their pitch, followed by five minutes for questions from a panel of judges. If the communities advance to the finals, they will land $100,000 and a year to start on the valley’s projects before that work is judged for the $3 million top prize.

The mayors say that money would go far in the Stillaguamish Valley.

After the slide, they learned a lot about stretching dollars. Darrington got $4 million from the state for transportation projects and more than doubled its haul with matching money. As a result, “we’ll see some sort of upgrade on every city street in Darrington,” Rankin said.

Arlington used $1 million from the state as a match to land another $2.6 million for the Arlington Valley Road project, aimed at improving transportation around the city’s industrial and employment center.

The work since the mudslide has emphasized the importance of building relationships and breaking down barriers, Rankin said. He and Tolbert found dozens of partners who were willing to walk alongside them.

“So many times in tragedy and strife, people want to help but they want to help in the way they know how, so they plop something down in front of you and say, ‘My job is done,’” Rankin said.

“Don’t do something to us,” he likes to say. “Do something with us.”

The reminder

There are parts of the tragedy that are beyond the reach of any plan.

The need for mental health counseling is huge and will continue indefinitely, said the Rev. Tim Sauer at Immaculate Conception Church in Arlington.

Immaculate Conception covered the costs for the funerals of mudslide victims and still is helping pay for counseling for people who lost loved ones and homes to the slide.

Eventually, the money is going to run out. The need won’t. Sauer is part of the long-term recovery group.

“It takes a certain amount of time to repair a bridge. It takes a certain amount of time to repair a road,” Sauer said. “It takes a lot longer to heal a human heart. It’s important to remember that even years after an event like this, when most people are returning to ‘normal,’ for some people there is no normal. They don’t know what normal is anymore.”

North Counties Family Services continues to work in Darrington; and the Arlington Community Resource Center was formed after the mudslide to help on the west end of the valley. The nonprofits connect people to resources for housing, healthcare and food and coordinate support groups, including one for people who lost loved ones in the mudslide.

Elson Floyd, the late president of Washington State University, offered a year of free tuition for students affected by the slide. Helping out in such dire circumstances is what land grant universities do, he said. WSU continues to aid in recovery efforts, sending students to the valley to work on projects. People still want to help, Tolbert said.

One of the biggest things they can do is to reach out to friends, family and neighbors to see how they’re doing, she said.

“A lot of reflection, a lot of looking back and looking forward happens at this point,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have a long ways to go yet.”

The reminders are everywhere, Sauer said. People drive past the broken hill every day. The disaster is part of the valley now.

“When you see that scar on the mountain, it’s a reminder of all the other scars that are still there,” Sauer said. “It’ll be a long time before the trees grow tall enough that you won’t be able to see that scar.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

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