A tragic landslide happened three years ago today. From The Bellingham Herald:
Three years later, families, officials and scientists wrestle with lessons learned from Oso landslide
Deborah Farnes looked forward to the day she would testify about the March 22, 2014, Oso landslide that killed her husband, Tom Durnell, while she was away at work at a hospital in Everett.
She hoped to share her grief over the loss of her spouse and 42 other people, and the anger that followed as she learned – for the first time – about the scope of the hazards posed by the hillside that came crashing down during that awful spring day three years ago.
“I wanted this to go to trial, and for this information to be made public. That there was this danger that existed,” Farnes said. “ I didn’t know about that until after everyone died, and it was too late.”
The trial was forestalled by $60 million in settlements reached just before the Oct. 10, 2016, scheduled start of opening arguments. But the years of legal sparring that led to that resolution put a spotlight on landslide risks in the Pacific Northwest, and the uneasy interplay between scientists who have the knowledge to assess that potential and government officials who must decide what – if anything – to do to protect the people who may live in harm’s way.
The civil case, involving 29 plaintiffs, some with multiple claims, had loomed as one of the largest tort cases in Washington history. It was brought by Farnes and other survivors who alleged that the state and a timber company – Grandy Lake Forest Associates – had taken actions that increased the risks of a catastrophic slide and failed to inform their neighbors in Steelhead Haven along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish about that potential.
The instability of the land was already known and there had been talk about buying the residents out and having them re-locate:
“If you are dealing with landslide hazards … you at some point, implicitly or explicitly, have to decide what level of risk is acceptable, and most decision-makers have to rely on people like me in order to do that,” said Dan Miller, a geomorphologist who wrote some of the early reports warning about Oso’s deep-seated landslide formation. “So what kind of information are they getting?”
A 1999 study prepared by Miller for the Army Corps of Engineers cited the potential for a catastrophic failure of what was known as the Hazel Landslide formation, and a 2000 study for the corps listed buying out the residents of Steelhead Haven as an option to reduce the risks of loss of life.
And the whole valley is unstable:
Since the slide, new research has documented a history of more than 200 other deep-seated landslides along a 15.5-mile stretch of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish that includes the Oso site. Many occurred from a few hundred to a few thousand years ago, and some had enough power to move across the river.
“The valley’s geomorphology shows that it is capable of failing in a big catastrophic fashion, but predicting where it will fail is not easy,” said Sean LaHusen, a University of Washington researcher, a co-author of the study that was published this year in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
I already had my amateur radio license but it was Oso that prompted me to get more involved with Emergency Communications and CERT. Our own little hamlet has its share of risks - volcano, earthquakes, lahar, landslide, forest fire. That and we are at the end of a long and thin supply line - anything that disrupts traffic for more than a couple of days and people will start running out of food and supplies.