Horror, heartbreak as community swept away

The News TribuneMarch 25, 2014 

The images of a mudslide-devastated Snohomish County community are mind-boggling. The human tragedies that are unfolding are heartbreaking.

Fourteen are confirmed dead near Oso in Snohomish County as of this writing, but many are missing in a deep, square-mile wall of mud and debris. Authorities say up to 176 people have been reported missing. 

That list includes people just going about daily life: girls having a weekend sleepover, a college student and her fiance visiting her grandparents, a woman driving on state Route 530 to an appointment, an electrician installing a hot water heater, and the wife and infant granddaughter of an Oso firefighter.

Rescuers are hoping against hope to find survivors. But barring some kind of miracle, their mission is now one of recovery. Although cries for help were heard on the first day of the disaster, the voices have been stilled.

The quicksand-like debris field is so big and still so dangerous that it’s hard to search much of it. The grim task won’t be made easier by incoming weather: more rain.

All the rain in the last 45 days — more than 15 inches above normal — is believed to have contributed to the slide, which likely was a result of a supersaturated hillside being undercut by the Stillaguamish River. When it broke loose, it carried a huge expanse of soil, rocks and trees across the river and into a residential area with about 25 to 30 occupied homes. It also thundered across SR 530 — and any vehicles on that stretch of road at the time.

Immediate efforts must focus on locating any survivors, recovering remains and comforting those who lost loved ones. But it’s also important to determine if other communities are in danger of a similar disaster. There had been a smaller slide in the same area in 2006, an indication that the hillside was unstable.

The extent of this tragedy seems almost unthinkable, but we need to think about it. As big as it was, the Oso mudslide is only a faint foreshadowing of what lahars coming off Mount Rainier would be like. They would roar down river channels with at least as much force, through much more heavily populated areas.

Residents likely would get at least some warning — which is more than the people of Oso got. They also have the benefit of time to plan for how they would get to higher ground if the lahar sirens go off.

Anyone in the lahar area who doesn’t have an escape plan by now should consider the Oso mudslide their wakeup call.

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