Katy Burns: A moving mass of deadly mud, then silence
‘There was always stuff coming down,” said one woman of life in the tiny Washington State community called Oso that was largely obliterated by a horrific mudslide just over a week ago.
But calling that monstrosity a mudslide – such a benign name, really, evoking the messy small pleasures of mud puddles and mud pies – seems wrong. It was, really, a massive earth avalanche, a tsunami of sodden soil that gathered strength and size as it roared down a steep slope, sweeping everything it encountered – houses, autos, trees and, heartbreakingly, people – into itself.
What was left – mere minutes after it began – was a square mile of debris-choked mud slurry 30 to 40 feet deep in some places. There was, we were told, five times as much mud in that pile as there is concrete in the massive Hoover Dam.
As word spread about the catastrophe and would-be rescuers arrived on the scene, they were confronted with cries from the within the mass of mud. But the site was unstable. Moving onto it would only court more disaster. And the voices fell silent as thwarted saviors held a heartbreaking vigil.
As the pile began to dry and to stabilize, firefighters, rescue workers and National Guard troops – plus a small army of volunteers, including friends and relatives of the missing – searched cautiously through the mass of mud. Initially, at least, the most effective tools were shovels and hands and dogs. Then came loggers with their heavy earth-moving equipment.
And so we again watch a natural disaster with tragic human consequences, this time in our own country, in a place normally viewed as an enchanted world of mountains and woods and water and fresh, clean air.
These particular images and stories are new, yet heartbreakingly familiar because we have – thanks to our 24/7 world of all news, all the time – seen similar ones so often.
We hear of an older couple, drinking their morning coffee in their matching recliners when the wall of mud hits. He is swept clear and pleads with his rescuers to ignore him and – please! – find his wife. But she’s gone, buried.
A grandmother babysits her infant granddaughter. Neither survives. Only the grandmother’s body is initially found. The child’s hollow-eyed mother, looking to be still in shock, is asked when she would stop looking for her baby. “Never,” she says intensely. “Never.”
We see a grainy video of a tow-headed 4-year-old being plucked from the pile by lifesavers in a helicopter. His father and three siblings are among the missing.
A man is there to look for his sister. On Thursday, her body is found. He will take his dead sister’s remains to their mother. Then, he vows, he’ll return to help others look for their loved ones. The survivors now share a sad bond. And they share a dawning knowledge that it’s likely some victims will never be found.
By the end of the week, the known death toll had reached 26, with up to 90 more said to be missing, perhaps forever entombed in mud.
We’re shocked when things like this happen in this country, not some faraway third-world place where poor people live in shacks that are inevitably destroyed in one natural disaster or another.
We in the United States aren’t like that. We live in properly built houses in places that are safe. We have rules and restrictions designed to keep us safe. And we are much too smart to put ourselves in places of peril. Right?
“This beggars the imagination,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday. “The devastation is so total. There is not a stick. There’s not a brick. There is nothing in this slide area. And the power of this thing was beyond imagination.”
On a local level, the local emergency management director – who was clearly deeply affected by the tragedy and near tears – said that, in effect, the tragedy was unforeseeable.
“Sometimes landslides that are this catastrophic just happen.”
“Beyond imagination?” These catastrophic things “just happen”? Well, maybe they do. But usually in a vacuum of information. In this case, there was a wealth of information that this site was an accident – specifically, a landslide, perhaps of a catastrophic magnitude – waiting to happen. The geology of the place almost dictates it.
So said the New York Times in a lengthy piece about the unusual geologic attributes of the area. I called a friend, a geologist who (after cautioning me that “surface geology and geomorphology are not my specialties”) talked knowledgeably about slope steepness, the relative youth of western mountains, glacial soil, clay, “till,” sand, faults and earthquakes, and older and younger rocks. All combined to make the site geologically unstable, especially since it’s an area regularly subjected to frequent and heavy rains.
In fact, there were numerous earlier, albeit smaller, slides at the site, at least five just since 1949, all well-documented. Several reports over the years had warned that the place was sure to have more landslides, some catastrophic. Local officials, including the guy who said such landslides “just happened,” said residents were amply warned.
Residents, those who survived at least, said they had no idea such disasters were almost inevitable. We don’t know where the truth lies, if there is one.
But we do know that the county kept handing out building permits, and people kept building there, seduced by the beauty of the place even if “there was always stuff coming down,” little landslides that became part of life in Oso, as did the occasionally rumbly noises from the hill behind the town. The number of houses in the danger zone multiplied, and many of those houses were reduced to kindling-sized pieces by the force of the slide.
So it goes in our country. People keep pushing the boundaries, wanting to live where nature is most beautiful – and most dangerous, whether it’s in fire-prone western forests, barrier islands open to hurricanes and floods, geological fault zones susceptible to earthquakes or picturesque properties that might suddenly tumble downhill.
And our public policies – including subsidized insurance and government policies eager to add yet another house or business to the tax rolls – encourage such recklessness, because most governments are invested in growth without giving much thought to the cost.
And so we’re almost guaranteed a steady stream of heartbreaking stories for years to come.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)