Victims of Oso mudslide still await buyouts, 16 months later

OSO — The wait seems endless, with dates that keep shifting and questions that go unanswered.

Sixteen months after the massive mudslide, families who lost loved ones and houses aren’t sure when they might see federal buyouts. For some, that means the difference between dreams of a new permanent home and putting plans on hold because too much is unknown.

It feels like a constant ulcer, chewing on them, said Tim Ward, who suffered life- changing injuries and lost his wife and home in the slide.

“They won’t even promise us a date, so I can go on with my life,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in June that it would award the county $6.6 million in grants for voluntary buyouts in the slide zone. That would pay for a first round of buyouts. The county and families hope more buyout money is coming.

The FEMA Hazard Grant covers 75 percent of the cost, with the state Military Department and the county splitting the rest. The county has received a Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, grant to cover its portion.

The County Council is scheduled to vote Aug. 19 on actions that would allow the county to begin the buyout process.

The March 22, 2014, mudslide killed 43 people. Survivors now are being told that people who didn’t have flood insurance might see checks in October. People who did have flood insurance might get word about their buyouts after that. FEMA wants to avoid duplicating any benefits from flood insurance.

The agency has implied there will be a second round of buyouts, but hasn’t provided specifics.

Ward expects to be in that second group. Like others, he received some compensation from the National Flood Insurance Program.

“It shouldn’t take months,” Ward said. He’s been staying in a rental home in Arlington, debating where to buy property and how to afford it. One of his former neighbors from Steelhead Drive is living in a travel trailer.

The buyout process — like many disaster relief programs — has been a complicated mix of federal, state and local agencies. Away from those layers of bureaucracy, the debris field remains a place fraught with emotion. Reports of trespassing and souvenir-collecting are a torment to survivors, who see the slide as a graveyard and as sacred ground.

The county’s next step for buyouts is to reach out to the property owners. For those who agree to a buyout, what follows should resemble a typical real estate deal, said Heather Kelly, the county official overseeing the long-term recovery.

“That will go through escrow and title, just like any other real estate transaction,” Kelly said. “It will take roughly six to eight weeks.”

Property titles must be clear, meaning the county can’t buy properties encumbered by liens or other restrictions. Some families still are dealing with banks that won’t forgive their mortgages.

FEMA sets the rules, not the county, Kelly said.

“We’re administering the grant, but it’s FEMA’s program and we have to follow their guidance and directives,” she said.

The Pszonka family lost six people in the slide. They want the buyouts to happen in hopes the state or federal government would better secure the debris field. Between April 9, 2014, and May 23, 2015, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office received more than two dozen reports of trespassing and theft in the slide zone. Often, there was too little information to investigate or people were gone when deputies arrived.

Last week, some of the families set out painted rocks in the memorial peace grove planted at the slide. They do art projects together to heal. On any given visit to Oso, they see people walking around the dirt, Jessica Pszonka-Lutz said. Her family stays away on weekends for that very reason.

“It makes us physically ill,” she said.

Before the slide, her parents, Karen and Tom, had been planning to join her sister, Katie, in living on Steelhead Drive.

Karen and Tom Pszonka just recently moved in with Jessica in Silvana. They are trying to make a fresh start, not to forget their memories but to embrace new ones.

Karen owns a small blue notebook where she keeps track of her phone calls. Since the slide, she has a hard time remembering names and dates. She still doesn’t sleep through the night.

They see friends from Oso struggling. The buyouts always come up at the weekly support groups, Karen said. The process feels like “13 million meetings,” plus the phone calls that go in circles, she said.

When she makes her calls, “the county points at the state and the state points at the county,” she said. A representative from the governor’s office kept telling her, “We’re doing the best we can.”

“Let’s start disbursing it and let these people get on with their lives,” she said. “You get nervous.”

Her daughter, Katie, was a working mom and spoiled her two boys with Happy Meals. A friend of the family saw Happy Meal toys in the mud earlier this year, left them alone, and the toys later disappeared, she said.

“What could you possibly get out of taking items out of this area? I don’t get it,” she said. “That part’s really tough.”

For the first phase of buyouts, Snohomish County is authorized to buy out 62 parcels that FEMA has deemed eligible.

Under FEMA’s rules, the county could offer preslide values for the properties. Altogether, the county’s request involves 118 parcels.

The buyouts are separate from plans to commemorate the loss with a permanent memorial alongside Highway 530. For that memorial, the county has purchased 13 acres near Steelhead Drive. The county is working with families on the design and location, Kelly said.

“It’s going to take time to make this the right memorial for the community for the next 50, 100 years or longer,” Kelly said.

Reporter Kari Bray contributed to this story.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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