Panel investigating Oso lessons needs more time

EVERETT — The experts tasked with identifying key public safety lessons from the Oso mudslide ended what was supposed to be their last meeting Tuesday without a final product — but they are close.

That leaves the Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission less than two weeks to fine-tune their report. When their work is done, expect to see more than 20 recommendations to better prepare for and respond to future natural disasters.

A subgroup working with fire, police and other public safety issues finished its work Tuesday night. Another group wrestling with how best to put the state on track for better identifying landslide risks, however, will need some more time.

“Clearly, we have not finished this conversation,” said Mike Gaffney, a Washington State University faculty member helping to coordinate the group’s work.

“We’re going to have to meet again. Virtually or face to face,” he said.

A meeting of the full group is likely to take place in Everett next week.

In the group’s draft report, they stress the need to redouble the state’s efforts for mapping landslide hazards.

Communities throughout Washington also need a template to incorporate skilled volunteers into future disaster responses, as happened with loggers who played a valuable role in Oso. There’s a lot more that state leaders can do to rush aid to the scene of future disasters, especially during the first few hours.

More funding for state, tribal and local emergency agencies is another theme throughout the commission’s draft recommendations. So is better communication.

The commission’s final report is due Dec. 15.

The Oso landslide struck at 10:37 a.m. March 22, a Saturday. Within a few violent minutes, it spread debris over a square mile, claiming 43 lives. The massive flow destroyed about 40 homes and part of Highway 530, largely cutting off Darrington from the rest of the county.

Rescue and recovery efforts drew in about 1,000 people. They included professionals from dozens of public agencies, trained volunteers, untrained volunteers, family members and neighbors.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick formed the expert commission in July to figure out what people in Washington could learn from the catastrophe. The 12 commissioners developed their findings over the course of 10 meetings, starting in August. Meetings have taken place in the Everett School District’s administration building.

Commissioners divided their work into two general areas: the emergency response immediately after the slide and land-use practices to attempt to keep people out of harm’s way during future slides.

It’s up to the governor and the Legislature to act on the recommendations.

The first steps outlined in the commission’s draft involve launching a program to map landslide dangers throughout the state. The maps would use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology. They would gauge risks for busy roads and rail lines, as well as other critical infrastructure, including the I-5 corridor and mountain highways. Maps would include predicted runout zones.

The group is recommending that DNR’s Division of Geology and Earth Sciences oversee the mapping. DNR could bring in geology professionals from outside the agency to assist.

“It would make sense to draw expertise from the wider geologic community,” said UW geomorphology professor David Montgomery, one of the commissioners.

Much of the conversation Tuesday turned on whether commissioners would specifically endorse DNR’s pending request for $6.5 million for geologic mapping in next year’s state budget.

On a different front, the group appears ready to make a strong recommendation that the Legislature change the law to allow local fire commanders to mobilize state resources for emergencies that aren’t fires. That would bring the state’s well-tested emergency resources into play earlier and ease anxieties among local officials about paying for the response.

After Oso, Snohomish County fire officials’ request for state fire mobilization was turned down. Fire officials from around the state have been pushing for a broadening of state mobilization criteria for years. State lawmakers have balked at including other sorts of disasters, partly because of worries about how to pay for it.

There’s more left to learn from the physical aftermath of the slide, commissioners noted. They are recommending the state pay for up to $2 million to monitor the Oso debris field and nearby mudslides. That should help them more accurately predict whether the hillside is likely to move again. It could also improve their understanding of dangers on nearby slopes.

It’s important to apply the lessons from Oso, not only for isolated landslides, but for the large-scale earthquakes, the draft report notes. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake in 2001 triggered several landslides, in addition to the well-publicized damage to brick buildings and the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. Problems could be more widespread, the report notes, following a 9.0 earthquake off the Washington coast.

Commissioners come from varying backgrounds — geological scientists, public safety leaders, elected officials and planners.

The group has been led by Kathy Lombardo, a geologist by training who has worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and CH2M Hill.

The William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a public policy institute, helped coordinate the commission’s work.

The commission operated under a $150,000 budget with the state covering two-thirds of the cost and Snohomish County the rest. The group wasn’t tasked with establishing blame for land-use or logging decisions before the slide.

A scientific report issued in July identified no single cause for the Oso slide, but determined it originated in a previous landslide on the same hill in 2006.

Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Darrington Town Councilman Kevin Ashe made sure the commissioners knew their work is appreciated.

“On behalf of myself and the community of Darrington,” Ashe said, “we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

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

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