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Originally published March 25, 2014 at 8:31 PM | Page modified March 26, 2014 at 5:41 AM

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Officials in denial on Oso slide

It’s true the government can’t save you from natural disaster. But it can try a lot harder than it did before the Oso slide.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Northwesterners are stoics about natural disaster. When you live with big nature up in your face all the time, maybe it’s not so surprising when it sometimes strikes.

“If the hillsides were going to slough away, they were going to slough away,” said one homeowner who survived the Oso slide. “That’s kind of what happens around here.”

The British call this the stiff upper lip. It helps in recovering from unimaginable tragedy, which is what Snohomish County clearly is facing now. This could be the worst natural disaster around here since Mount St. Helens erupted 34 years ago, killing 57. Horrifically, the Oso slide may exceed that death toll.

So it’s understandable not to try to reason why. We acknowledge we’re not in charge. Nature is.

The Oso homeowner added, people shouldn’t expect the government to prevent such disasters. They’re inevitable.

“That’s like saying the river is going to flood,” he said.

And yet all it took was a few Seattle Times reporters looking through records for one day to find that this was no bolt from the heavens. There had been landslides at this spot repeatedly — in 1949, 1951, 1967 and 2006. Plus there was constant flooding, in which the rambunctious Stillaguamish would “channel migrate” — jump its banks to chart a new course, often eating again at the unstable hillside.

Geologists specifically called out the chances of “a large catastrophic failure” of the hillside. These warnings weren’t ignored by government officials so much as filed away. Perhaps with some of that “it’s kind of what happens around here” inertia.

They talked about stricter development rules or buying out the Oso homes. Instead, they continued to green-light new homes. Residents knew some of the risks, but whether they knew the full slate of warnings isn’t clear.

We all live on a major earthquake fault. So we hand ourselves over to the whims of the nature gods every day. But this was a small collection of homes facing discrete, recurring threats. Something could have been done, if there had been the will.

I knew a neighborhood like it, in Maple Valley, called Rainbow Bend. As a reporter I covered a massive flood there in 1990, with waist-deep water coursing through living rooms of some houses. It flooded again in 1995, and 1996. I returned a fourth time in 2006, and asked the people, still there after all these floods, if this wasn’t the cliché definition of insanity.

They laughed and answered with that same “river’s gonna do what rivers do” stoicism. I admired their grit; it helped them slog on. But I also thought: Why are they allowed to live here?

They aren’t anymore. King County launched a controversial program in the 1990s to stop fighting nature by buying out homes like this. It took 20 years, but they finally got the last of 60 Rainbow Bend homes moved or torn down in 2010. Last fall they dismantled the levee, unchaining the Cedar River to run wild if it wants (this is supposed to ease downstream flooding as well).

Politically, this wasn’t easy. The hand of big government feels heaviest when it’s knocking at your door, urging you to sell and get out. It also cost taxpayers more than $10 million. But to King County’s credit, they stuck with it. They didn’t just stolidly wait for the next disaster. For the cycle to repeat itself.

The families of Oso need room to deal with grief however they see fit. But when Snohomish County officials say the hillside above Oso was “considered very safe” and that the slide “came out of nowhere,” that wasn’t keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy. That was denial.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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