Judgment during a tragedy

Emergencies are the enemy of deliberative thinking. The strength displayed by the people of Darrington and Arlington turned the Oso tragedy into the rule’s exception.

Volunteers and first responders mimicked the gears of an engine, scouring the debris field and comforting those in mourning. A harmonious response sprang from neighbors and volunteer firefighters rooted in their community, as much as it flowed from 110 agencies and nonprofit groups.

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin stood conventional thinking on its head. Oso showcased their judgment, as ego fell away. In reviewing next steps, including a state-county commission to examine the geomorphology, county planning, the emergency response and, most critical of all, lessons and prevention measures, Tolbert exhibits big-picture wisdom.

“I’m not so sure that those of us involved in the response should be on that commission,” Tolbert said last week. There’s value to distance, a hedge against politicians’ muscle memory to take cover. “We have to be careful that we don’t do any knee-jerk policymaking.”

The Snohomish County Council merits praise for its sober approach. On Monday, the council tabled action on a one-size, emergency building moratorium within a half-mile of potential slide areas (read: that’s most of the county, outside of urban and flood zones.) Instead, they’re following the lead of Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks who asked for time to review building setbacks and engineering in landslide-hazard areas.

For now, thanks to a push by Councilman Ken Klein, the council likely will move on creation of an Arlington-Marysville Manufacturing &Industrial Center to foster jobs in the Stillaguamish Valley, including Darrington. The area’s economic revival needs to dovetail with a lessons-learned action plan.

Late Friday (the best time to sidestep headlines) Washington’s Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark issued a press release announcing restrictions on timber harvests near potential landslide-hazard areas.

“When questions began to be asked if a timber harvest conducted before I took office (emphasis added) may have contributed in some way to the tragic Oso landslide, I promised that DNR would thoroughly investigate these concerns using sound science,” Goldmark said.

Goldmark’s action may be warranted (and few state agencies demand scrutiny more than the Department of Natural Resources) but his it’s-not-my-fault M.O. illustrates the problem of thinking in an emergency.

Tolbert’s analysis resonates: It’s in the public interest to bring in unbiased experts, ask the hard questions and remove politicians from the mix.

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