Side road seen as route around mudslide

DARRINGTON — State officials have unveiled a plan that will restore some access to the town of Darrington and other areas cut off by the March 22 Oso mudslide.

Meanwhile, search crews on Tuesday recovered another body from the debris, bringing the number of confirmed dead to 37. The body has not been officially identified by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner. Seven people are still listed as officially missing.

At a community meeting in Darrington Monday night, officials with the state Department of Transportation revealed a plan to open a service road to local traffic.

The service road, built by Seattle City Light to access its power lines on the south slope of the valley, has been used by emergency crews to gain access to both sides of the slide.

Once opened to local traffic, it could cut hours off of commute times between Darrington and the rest of Snohomish County.

“If all goes well we should have that open in coming weeks,” department spokesman Travis Phelps said.

State officials have begun the process of getting permission from local residents whose properties the access road crosses.

Once opened, it could only be used by local traffic. The one-lane access road is mostly gravel.

Traffic would be escorted and only flow in one direction at a time, and the road likely will only be open for limited hours during daytime, Phelps said.

The longer-term plan for Highway 530 is still unknown.

The public meetings in Darrington on Monday night, Oso on Tuesday night and in Arlington tonight are intended for the public to provide input and opinions about the future of the highway.

There are many obstacles to clear before work on the roadway can begin, including the fact that the recovery operation is still under way, Phelps said.

There are still more than 100,000 cubic yards of debris in the roadway, he said, the equivalent of more than 10,000 full dump truck loads that will take up to three months to remove.

It is also not known what condition the roadway is in underneath all the debris, he added, and there is the possibility that more human remains could yet be found.

“We’re going to have to approach this clearing with a much more slow, methodical process than other projects,” Phelps said.

With that, the hope is that Highway 530 could be reopened by the fall, Phelps said.

That would be a relief to Darrington residents, but it might come at a steep cost.

Darrington resident Jentry Wright, a mother of three whose husband works in Everett, said that the town would suffer if the highway couldn’t be reopened sooner.

“Businesses in Darrington bank on the summer,” Wright said.

Longer commutes and shopping trips are taking a toll on residents, but that toll could rise if the annual influx of tourists is kept out with the road closure, she said.

One piece of good news on Tuesday was President Barack Obama’s signature enacting a new federal law that protects the Green Mountain Lookout, a popular hiking destination in the Glacier Peak Wilderness near Darrington.

The Army Corps of Engineers also completed a 3,000-foot-long temporary berm and has been pumping water out of a 22-acre lake created by the flooding of the North Fork Stillaguamish behind the slide area.

As of Tuesday afternoon, about one-third of the water in the area had been drained, said Doug Weber, the chief of emergency management for the Corps’ Seattle district.

The slide and flooding destroyed or damaged 36 houses and a dozen manufactured homes, some of which are still in flooded areas and only now are beginning to dry out.

In some places the levee rises as high as 15 feet above the surrounding land, but the Corps is still working to stabilize it and control water flowing into the area from a nearby creek and other sources such as groundwater, the river and rainy weather.

Over the longer term, the plan will be to remove the levee in the summer and use the material for a new road base for rebuilding Highway 530, Weber said.

Meanwhile, the slow work of recovery continues. FEMA has dispersed $291,477 in emergency housing assistance so far, and will be reviewing applications to determine who is eligible for other forms of aid.

As of Tuesday morning, FEMA had received 481 applications for aid, a spokesman said, and there have been 253 visits to its three Disaster Recovery Centers.

Flags on government buildings statewide are flying at half-staff this week to honor the victims of the mudslide, and will remain until the end of the day next Tuesday, marking one month since the slide struck. It is also the day the president is scheduled to visit the slide area.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

Rikki King contributed to this story.

Highway 530 meeting

Snohomish County and the state Department of Transportation are holding meetings to discuss the future of Highway 530, which was blocked by the March 22 mudslide. The final meeting is tonight, 6 to 8, at the Stillaguamish Senior Center, main hall, 18308 Smokey Point Blvd., Arlington.

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