Two paths after the Oso landslide

Two years have now passed since a landslide cut through the Stillaguamish Valley’s Steelhead Haven neighborhood near Oso, buried the highway connecting Darrington and Arlington, destroyed scores of homes and killed 43 people.

Since March 22, 2014, two paths of response have emerged: One addresses the efforts of recovery to aid the slide’s immediate victims but also to rebuild and strengthen the communities throughout the valley. The other examines the geologic causes of landslides and seeks a deeper understanding of the forces involved that can alert us to threats to existing communities and help us more wisely choose how to live with those hazards.

Each aspect is represented by guest commentaries in today’s Sunday Herald on Page B7.

The first, by Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert and Snohomish County American Red Cross Executive Director Chuck Morrison, is a statement about what the communities have learned about themselves in how they responded to help each other and look forward.

The second, by University of Washington geotechnical engineering professor Joseph Wartman, outlines what has been learned and what is not yet known about the causes of the landslide and how that might direct policy and action to minimize the risks of landslide elsewhere.

On both paths, much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done in coming years.

Work by Rankin, Tolbert and many others has resulted in the North Stillaguamish Valley Economic Redevelopment Plan, a 150-page report on the regional economy and a detailed list of projects and strategies that addresses transportation, business development, tourism, recreation, housing, education and more. More than a wish list, the plan identifies the governments, agencies and organizations that can or have taken the lead for action.

That report has been distilled down to 25 pages as part of Arlington and Darrington’s entry in the America’s Best Communities contest. Having qualified as semifinalists, the communities could be awarded $100,000 this year if selected as a finalist, then $3 million next year if selected as the grand-prize winner. The award would be a significant boost, but will only add to the good that can come of the plan’s projects as they come to fruition.

What has been learned about the natural causes and human influences on landslides also has show results.

Last year, the Legislature approved $4.6 million to launch a geological hazards mapping program that will use lidar (light detection and radar) technology to sweep more than 3,000 square miles in lowlands between Everett and Bellingham searching for areas most prone to the threat of landslides.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, hopes to add to that effort with legislation, the National Landslide Loss Reduction Act, which would establish a landslide hazards reduction program through the U.S. Geological Survey, providing grants for hazards mapping and a national program of assessment, coordination and community education.

Respect for the dangers, informed by the Oso landslide, must have played a part in Chelan County’s recent decision to advise a neighborhood of 26 homes near Wenatchee to evacuate after unstable slopes were detected following several waterline breaks.

We can’t hope to hold back a landslide, any more than we can suppress an earthquake or quiet a tornado. But we have two paths now that can direct our response in rebuilding after natural disasters and show us how to identify threats and make decisions that can minimize the damage and loss of life.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified the organization for which Chuck Morrison is executive director. He leads the Snohomish County American Red Cross.

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