Task force to probe Oso mudslide and emergency response

EVERETT — The search for two people still missing and presumed dead since the March 22 Oso mudslide is being scaled back even as a new effort begins to formally examine why the disaster happened and how Snohomish County responded.

The tangled field of mud and logs left when the slide swept across the North Fork Stillaguamish River valley will continue to be searched for signs of missing people, but those efforts will be significantly smaller, Sheriff Ty Trenary told a press conference Monday.

“We are not giving up,” he said.

Meanwhile, County Executive John Lovick announced talks have begun with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to convene an independent commission to explore why the hill fell, the land-use decisions made by area leaders prior to the slide, and their response since the disaster.

“There will be a lot of questions and we hope to have a lot of answers,” Lovick said.

So far, 41 people have been recovered and identified as victims of the mudslide. Still missing are Steven Hadaway, 53, who had been installing a satellite TV dish at a home along Steelhead Drive, and Kris Regelbrugge, 44, whose husband’s body already has been recovered.

Trenary said the search continued Monday in the southwest corner of the debris field where there is reason to believe Regelbrugge may be. Crews are hoping for drier conditions before they can search a swampy area on the east side of the slide, Trenary said, adding that it is simply too risky right now.

The effort has benefitted from analysis of the mudflow performed by Washington Task Force 1, a team that specializes in technical search-and-rescue and draws members from Pierce and King counties.

Maps created by the team “led us to this point. That’s how we recovered 41 people,” Trenary said.

Despite the scaled-back search, Hadaway’s family remains optimistic he will be found.

Trenary told his family a week ago about plans to dial back the search and wait for conditions to improve with drier weather.

“It makes logical sense what they are doing,” said John Hadaway, one of Steven Hadaway’s brothers. “It’s a waiting game.”

Hadaway said he is convinced the searchers, professional and volunteer, are just as committed as the families to recovering all those who died in the slide.

“I do believe that they are still just as hungry now, if not more so, than they were at the beginning. These people are still itching to go,” he said. “You want to come out with a perfect score. You want to have the A-plus on your report card. They want closure of everybody to be brought home.”

With the search efforts scaling back, the county has identified eight areas that need attention as part of the response.

Lovick has tapped Gary Haakenson, a seasoned county executive director and former Edmonds mayor, and John Koster, a former longtime county councilman, to help spearhead the initiatives.

Offices are being opened in Darrington and Arlington to help manage the recovery.

Getting Darrington reconnected to the rest of north county is a priority and the state Department of Transportation is taking the lead, Haakenson said.

Work remains to address a host of other issues, including helping people find housing, making sure mental health counseling is available and deciding what should happen to damaged property, Haakenson said.

“Our goal is to do our best to bring normalcy back to the valley in a timely manner,” he said, acknowledging that “for many families, normalcy will never return.”

The landscape itself will need attention, said Steve Thomsen, the county’s public works director. Crews have completed work on a 1,200-foot berm that has helped shrink the flooded area behind the slide zone from about 200 acres to less than 50 and falling, he said.

Meanwhile, work with special hoes fitted with pontoons has coaxed the river into a new channel “fairly close” to where it has historically run. But there will be years of work ahead tackling the silt downstream. There also is concern about how the changes in the landscape will affect the way the water moves in the valley, which is a historic flood plain, Thomsen said.

“Everything has changed and it is changing as we speak,” he said.

Lovick left little doubt that he and others involved in the slide effort have grown weary of some news reports suggesting the county did a poor job of addressing risk before the slide and was slow in responding to the carnage after the hill fell.

“I’m tremendously disappointed,” Lovick told the press conference, noting that in the first day rescue crews saved 11 people from the debris field. No rescuers have been seriously injured during the more than monthlong operation.

“This was a tremendous disaster,” he said later. “The response was a success. I’m not going to allow people to turn it into a failure.”

Lovick said he is working with the governor’s office to determine the makeup of the slide commission.

They’re searching for someone respected for federal disaster response to lead the review. The panel likely would include up to a dozen people.

They hope to begin work in May and finish by the end of the year with a document that makes policy recommendations, Lovick said.

“It’s going to look at everything that happened,” he said. “They’re going to cover every single detail.”

Another discussion is when to allow people to visit the slide area and under what circumstances.

The bottom line: not now.

“I don’t have any tolerance for somebody who is going up there on a tour bus or is going up there to collect mementos,” sheriff Trenary said.

Scott North: 425-339-3431, north@heraldnet.com

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