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Crews continue work at Oso mudslide

Bellevue Fire Lt. Richard Burke seeks to impart the scope of the Oso mudslide’s devastation to the press on April 2. - Kirk Boxleitner
Bellevue Fire Lt. Richard Burke seeks to impart the scope of the Oso mudslide’s devastation to the press on April 2.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

OSO — The Oso mudslide recovery effort received some welcome news on Wednesday, April 2, when President Obama approved a major disaster declaration for not only Snohomish County, but also the Stillaguamish, Tulalip and Sauk-Suiattle tribes. However, its progress continues to be measured at an incremental pace, two weeks after the disaster which swept across State Route 530 and the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

John Pennington, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management, returned to Haller Park to address the press on the evening of April 2, for the first time in nearly a week, to express his gratitude to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the area’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Jay Inslee for their work on behalf of the recovery efforts, but his highest praise was reserved for Snohomish County itself, which he deemed “a resilient community” that will bounce back from this natural disaster just as it’s done from the slowly receding economic downturn.

That same day, however, members of the responding crews on the ground guided news media through the scene of the devastation, which serves as a brutal reminder of how much work recovery crews still have ahead of them.

“Our 9/11 moment was when a lone cedar tree was left standing, in the middle of the debris, and we’d located an American flag that had been left in a residence,” said Bellevue Fire Lt. Richard Burke, who noted that the original flag has since been replaced with a garrison flag. “It’s a beacon of hope.”

Recovery crews were hoping to have adequate drainage carved out in time for the forecast rains on Thursday, April 3, to alleviate flooding of the debris fields that they’re still searching.

Snohomish County Fire District 7 Lt. Rob Fisher and the Maryland-based Lt. John Bentley, of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team, explained that the search has progressed from an initial hasty search, through primary and secondary searches, into a three-dimensional grid-pattern search.

“We’re using the lessons learned from other disasters,” Bentley said. “We’re using GPS to map out the lines, and when we leave, 100 percent of this area will be searched.”

While Bentley has found the debris itself to be the biggest obstacle, he didn’t disagree with Fisher about how much flood waters have slowed down the process. Between the two factors, they agreed with Burke that they’ve been tested not only by searching horizontally across the field, but vertically down into the ground, since the native soil has been covered by depths of 30-60 feet with debris and water.

“All this clay here came from those mountains,” Fisher pointed into the distance, while standing on the edge of the slide area on April 2. “We’re having to dig deep just to get to the level of the highway.”

Both Fisher and Bentley cited the strengths lent to the recovery efforts by the partnerships between the agencies involved, from the federal down to the local.

“We’ve worked together seamlessly and developed great relationships,” Bentley said. “Oso is an extended family, and we’ve felt very welcome here.”

“The local folks on the scene here have way more experience then we do with this area, so we’ve been able to use them as guides,” Fisher said.

Working with as few stumbles as possible becomes especially important when you’re just a few steps from getting contaminated by mud that’s mixed with septic tank contents, car oils, paint products, cleaning solutions and all manner of other everyday household chemicals that have turned into a toxic stew, that now demands the attention of the state Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife.

“You have to wash your tools and throw away your gloves,” said Fisher, who added that those state departments would be tasked with handling the remaining debris field after the search crews have completed their work.

“The Oso Fire Department lost an entire community on March 22,” Burke said, as he stood at the edge of the slide area.

Larry Nickey, the Olympic National Park fire management officer who’s currently serving as commander for the state’s Incident Management Team 4, met with the press for the first time in the afternoon of April 2, after they’d toured the Oso slide area, and reiterated that this remains a rescue and recovery operation, even as he acknowledged that the possibility of finding any new survivors is very slim.

“We’ve been plotting where we might find more victims by where we’ve been finding human remains and personal effects so far,” Nickey said. “People have asked why we haven’t been using the highest tech search equipment, but the best tech is our dogs. They’re specially trained and they have a high success rate.”

Nickey explained that each excavator has three people examining the contents of its buckets for human remains.

“We’ve scaled back on our volunteers, because we need people who are used to working in debris,” Nickey said.

Later that evening, Pennington urged those who have been impacted by the Oso mudslide — whether as businesses, as households or as individuals — to take advantage of the major disaster declaration by calling to register at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or logging onto www.disasterassistance.gov, so that they might receive the aid to which they’re entitled.

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