The scope of the Snohomish County mudslide is difficult to grasp. Aerial photographs lack the scale of a one mile-square disaster scene. Up close, evidence that an entire missing neighborhood – a red child’s hat, a twisted metal stair railing, the torn American flag now hanging in a command tent – have been so chaotically mixed in with fallen cedars and piles of mud that it’s equally easy to lose the scope.
What should the site look like in the future? Should Highway 530, which is still under 20 feet of mud in spots, be rebuilt, or moved? What of the Steelhead Haven neighborhood? The rescue and recovery efforts focus on the fringe; the force of the slide was so great it shoved everything out there, leaving 75 foot-high haystacks of mud dotting the former neighborhood.
Should the entire site be memorialized into something like a park?
Snohomish County government, which should be taking the lead, is in bunker mode, unwilling to answer questions about the known landslide risks or much else beyond the immediate recovery. Executive John Lovick didn’t return my call Friday.
But discussions about memorializing the site are clearly going on. “That is being talked about behind the scenes,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, the state House Republican leader who represents Arlington and Darrington. He doesn’t have an opinion, he said, because the situation is still too “raw.”
When I visited the Arlington side on Friday, 900 people and 31 excavators were consumed in a still-active recovery operation. A team of cadaver dogs from Sacramento trotted toward the site. Out on the mud field, a pile of muck is scooped and dropped in front of three-man teams, who sift it for remains or belongings. As important as this work is, it is not cleaning up the site. That has not really begun. Once it has, it will cost about $22 million, according to a back-of-the-napkin estimate by the state.
“You can’t leave it like that,” one rescue worker said, pointing to a ripped mattress sat on a pile of debris next to Highway 530.
He’s right, of course. The site is going to have to be cleaned. But how much? This map, which I photographed at the site, shows the astonishing depth of the mud. By one estimate, there’s 1 million dump trucks of mud out there.
It’s not clear if memorializing the site means ending recovery operations before all the 13 remaining missing people are found. That would sit badly with some in Arlington and Darrington. “They need to find everyone who is missing, and reopen the road,” said John Harper, chief of the Oso Fire Department, a 15-man volunteer force.
He stood next to Seth Jefferds, a captain in the department. Jefferds, a Steelhead Haven resident, who lost his wife and granddaughter in the tragedy, wore dark glasses.
“I can’t tell you how tough it’s been, and how tough it’s going to be,” he said, choking up. His fellow fire fighters gripped his shoulder.
When I asked him about memorializing the site, he clearly thought it was too early. “We’re looking for family members, because they’re not forgotten,” he said.
Steering clear of his grief, and the grief of other victims families, is the clear priority.
But it is not too soon to decide what should be one with Highway 530. That impacts, potentially, memorializing the site. Washington State Department of Transportation Travis Phelps said the agency would soon release a plan to engage Darrington and Arlington in a replacement highway.
Snohomish County should do the same regarding the quiet discussions of memorialization.
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