First visit to site of deadly landslide stuns commissioners
Members of the commission appointed to study the response of the Oso landslide visited the site of the deadly disaster for the first time.
Seattle Times staff reporter
As John Erickson walked onto the dusty land next to the Seattle City Light service road near Highway 530, he was overwhelmed.
From there, Erickson, the former director of emergency preparedness for the Washington Department of Health, could see only a steep slope where there had once been Slide Hill. Finally, he saw the devastation from the March 22 landslide firsthand.
Erickson is one of 12 people appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick to a commission tasked with reviewing the incident and the emergency response to identify gaps and lessons learned.
On Friday, 11 of them toured the site where 43 people died.
“I was out of state when this happened and frankly, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw,” Erickson said later. “Pictures don’t do it justice.”
The site visit and following meeting were the first of almost a dozen for the new commission.
The commissioners will not determine fault or liability, but they will, by Dec. 15, offer recommendations. Its members include emergency-response coordinators, urban planners, a geomorphologist, law-enforcement personnel and other experts.
At each of the four tour stops, members heard presentations on search-and-rescue efforts, river management, reconstruction of Highway 530 and debris cleanup.
“This really is an opportunity as this new chapter unfolds to better understand what happened and to better understand how we can do things to make all of us safer in the future,” said Charles Knutson, a senior policy adviser for the governor’s office.
Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy Glen Bergstrom described what they did on March 22 to the commissioners.
“(My wife) called me at work, which she never does, and said, ‘Something’s going on,’ ” he said. The initial report said there was a slide, and a barn roof was in the middle of the highway.
A helicopter that was scheduled for a training exercise that day instead flew off to join seven others, along with one fixed-wing aircraft, to help search for survivors.
Chief Pilot Bill Quistorf, of the Snohomish County sheriff’s Search and Rescue Air Support unit, called to divert the helicopter crew to Oso, but the crew was already on its way. He said numerous agencies responded “within minutes.”
That helped crews rescue nine people within three hours. Quistorf said those Army surplus helicopters, upgraded with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, were crucial in those initial hours.
“We could not have done this rescue operation without those funds,” he said.
After the tour, commission member Paul Chiles said the experience was sobering.
“You see what you see and you just get quiet,” he said. “It was a time to be quiet, to reflect and absorb.”
Chiles, a former chairman of Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said the sunflowers and other vegetation sprouting through the new landscape was reassuring.
Commission Executive Director Kathy Lombardo said the site was “muted” in comparison to what it used to be.
“I hope (the report) contains tangible actions that can be taken relatively quickly so we are all safer in the state of Washington,” she said.
The slide devastated the community and destroyed more than 30 homes in the Steelhead Haven neighborhood.
United Way of Snohomish County and the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation raised more than $4.5 million for victims of the disaster. The organizations have distributed more than $2.3 million with about two-thirds of that going directly to affected families and individuals, said Neil Parekh, United Way’s vice president of marketing and communications.
The American Red Cross has raised $4.5 million and distributed about half of that.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Caitlin Cruz: 206-464-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org