Oso mudslide provides lessons in disaster response for Whatcom County officials


The reach of the devastation from the mudslide in Oso really hit home for Bellingham Police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht when he got a call from a minister offering to bring in support officers - to tend to the support officers who already were helping grieving community members in the wake of the slide.

"It was my 'Oh wow' moment," said Vander Yacht, who spent about a week at the slide site working on emergency management. "When the people that are supporting people who are struggling need to be supported as well, the magnitude became apparent to me."

Vander Yacht is one of four Whatcom County members of the regional Northwest Washington Incident Management Team, which responded to the slide area to provide incident command assistance. He was there along with Western Washington University safety officer Holly Woll-Salkeld, and Kyle Dodd and Marcus Deyerin of the Whatcom County Health Department.

After the mudslide struck Saturday morning, March 22, the four received texts that afternoon confirming that the regional team - which includes members from Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish counties - was going to be deployed. They were down at the scene with other regional team members that evening filling roles in an incident command system.

The incident command system is a carefully orchestrated symphony, with a variety of responders focused on specific jobs - logistics, search and rescue, planning, financial support, safety, public communications, and more - all coming together to respond to a disaster.

"Disaster response is a team sport," Deyerin said.

There are a million details, big and small, that have to be seen to in order to respond effectively, team members said. There also are immediate needs - search dogs, for example - and the myriad things that go along with them, such as dog food, veterinary care, supplies to keep the dogs clean, and shelter for the animals.

Being involved in incident command in disasters like the Oso mudslide better prepares local officials if an emergency should occur in Whatcom County. It keeps them in touch with other agencies and aware of all the moving pieces that have to come into place after a disaster strikes.

"Our county is not as big as Snohomish County," Vander Yacht said. "It's going to be really important for us to use our resources wisely in a grave situation."

One of the lessons learned when dealing with a disaster is that it's more than just a single event, team members said. There are cascading impacts as well.

In the case of Oso, the slide sheared off the area's Internet connection, which made communication between the east and west sides of the slide difficult. Crews had to get emergency temporary lines set up so residents and responders could have contact with each other and the rest of the world.

"We need to think broadly, not just about the specific hazard," Deyerin said.

Deyerin gave an example: Suppose a major earthquake struck the Seattle area. There may be only small tremors that cause minimal damage in Whatcom County, but what if it knocks out the Interstate 5 corridor and we're cut off from other areas of the state?

"The biggest lesson I took away from our experience down there is the importance of humility," Deyerin said. "As soon as you think you're on top of it and you've got it under control, the world will correct you."

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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