New Report: Oso Landslide Rooted In Long History Of Slides

A photo taken immediately after the March 22 slide that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes in Oso, Washington. A new scientific reports says a history of landslides and a huge volume of precipitation were big contributors to the slide. | credit: Washington Department of Transportation

A photo taken immediately after the March 22 slide that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes in Oso, Washington. A new scientific reports says a history of landslides and a huge volume of precipitation were big contributors to the slide. | credit: Washington Department of Transportation

 

By: Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

SEATTLE — Scientists have concluded that rain, groundwater seepage and a long history of big landslides likely contributed to the massive landslide of March 22 that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes near Oso, Washington.

Those findings came out Tuesday, the result of a scientific team’s rapid-fire assessment of geology and localized factors.

Joe Wartman, a University of Washington associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-lead author of the study, said rainfall very likely played a key role in the slide.

“It mobilized as the water entered the landslide mass. It raised the water pressure in that mass,” Wartman said, “And as a result the landslide mass lost its strength and it became a fluidized mass of earth and material.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 7.6 million cubic meters of earth slid down across the Stillaguamish River, spreading out for more than a kilometer.

The researchers also looked further back in history, reviewing evidence from a number of large landslides in the Stillaguamish Valley around Oso during the previous 6,000 years. The team estimated that, based on a review of carbon dating and maps of 15 similar historic landslides nearby, slides such as the March event have happened in the same area as often as every 400 to 1,500 years historically.

“The real different thing about that particular spot was how much it had failed in the very recent past,” said Dave Montgomery, a geomorphologist with the University of Washington and co-author of the report. “It had been chewed on a lot by prior failures.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 3.07.16 PM
A 2003 lidar map of ground conditions where the Oso slide occurred.

 

The report authors said the landslide occurred in two phases. The first slope failure was a repeat of previous slides that had been documented as far back as the 1950s at that site. The most recent one to contribute to the March slide took place in 2006.

The second phase of the March 22 event tapped into a much deeper landslide history at the site.

“You have the really big ones from thousands of years ago,” Montgomery said, “But why did the piece of the slope fail that did? It was different from some other areas up and down the valley due to the history of failure in recent decades, which exacerbated the stability problem.”

The report raised a question that was brought up in the immediate aftermath of the slide: what role did logging play? But the authors said that they were “not in a position to answer the question of what degree forest practices contributed to this slide.” Any conclusions would require further modeling and were beyond the scope of this four-day reconnaissance effort, they said.

Logging can contribute to weakened root strength, allowing hillsides to slough off in heavy rain. But Montgomery said the team was pretty comfortable ruling out that idea because the slide was too big and roots would have been too thin to make a difference in preventing the massive amount of earth from loosening.

Another potential connection to logging is from the removal of trees that would otherwise have absorbed some of the precipitation, preventing it from seeping deep into the soil and loosening it. Groundwater seems to have been a key contributor to the destabilization of the slope near Oso, the report authors concluded. Montgomery said the team saw seeps of water coming into the exposed face, or scarp, of the landslide from neighboring creek basins to the east.

“We located five or six groundwater seeps where water is coming out of the wall of the slide and forming a little stream that is running across the scar,” Montgomery said. That stream could have destabilized the earth far below the surface of the slide, contributing to its size and extensive runout zone.

The authors concluded that methods to identify and predict potential landslide runout zones need to be revisited and re-evaluated. The use of LIDAR imagery could also provide a great deal of assistance in gathering historic evidence that landslides of this magnitude have run across the valley before, said Jeff Keaton, a principal engineering geologist with AMEC Americas, who contributed to the report.

“That would be a really helpful step in understanding how widespread this kind of process actually is,” he said.

But there’s more digging to be done, literally, said Joe Wartman.

“The hole we have at this point is understanding what was going on underneath the ground surface,” Wartman said. “I think the next big thing is drilling holes into that landslide and the nearby vicinity to get an understanding of what is underneath that large landslide.”

The authors called for further modeling in order to better understand to what degree logging or the Stillaguamish River, which was eating away at the toe of the slope, may have contributed to the catastrophic slide.

The USGS and others will be conducting field research in the coming months. You can read the full report here.

Sheriff’s office: Last body in Oso mudslide found

Ben Woodward looks up at a sign commemorating the moment of the Oso mudslide. The wooden memorial was attached to a towering spruce tree, one of the few in the debris field left standing after the disaster. (AP Photo/seattlepi.com, Joshua Trujillo)

Ben Woodward looks up at a sign commemorating the moment of the Oso mudslide. The wooden memorial was attached to a towering spruce tree, one of the few in the debris field left standing after the disaster. (AP Photo/seattlepi.com, Joshua Trujillo)

 

Source: KOMO News

EVERETT, Wash. – The Snohomish County sheriff’s office says search and rescue personnel believe they have located the last body from the deadly March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people at Oso.

Although the search for victims ended in April, workers have been screening debris and watching for the body of 44-year-old Molly Kristine “Kris” Regelbrugge.

Details were expected to be released at a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Everett.

Her husband, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, also was killed in the slide that hit their home. His body was one of the 42 recovered earlier.

The discovery came on the same day that a team of scientists released the results of a report into the causes of the deadly mudslide.

The report says intense rainfall likely played a major role in triggering the slide, but that many other factors also contributed, such as previous landslide activity that also weakened the slope that collapsed.

The team says the slide, the deadliest in U.S. history, occurred in two major stages. A fast-moving mudflow remobilized a 2006 slide, bringing down old slide deposits across the valley. Another slide followed a few minutes later.

The report makes several broad recommendations that include doing an examination of landslide risks and communicating the information to the public.

Highway 530 set to reopen this weekend

By Jerry Cornfield, The Herald

OSO — The damaged stretch of Highway 530 closed since the deadly March mudslide will reopen to traffic this weekend, state transportation officials said Thursday.

Exactly when it will open is to be announced today by the state Department of Transportation, whose leaders had predicted it would be mid-June before enough slide debris could be removed to enable safe travel by drivers.

When it reopens, the road will be a single lane and a pilot car will lead vehicles in each direction, as is done now on the parallel Seattle City Light access road that has served as a temporary route for the past month.

The March 22 mudslide killed 42 people and entombed a mile-long stretch of the highway under more than 100,000 cubic yards of debris. One person, Kris Regelbrugge, is still missing.

IMCO Construction of Ferndale received a $4.9 million contract to clear the debris in preparation for another contractor to repair and reconstruct damaged sections. The state might award a contract for that work as early as today.

In recent days, as IMCO workers removed more and more material, state transportation officials got a better sense of the extent of damage.

Most of the original road is intact, with slightly more than 500 feet actually missing, said WSDOT spokesman Travis Phelps on Thursday. That section will be lined with gravel and rock when the single-lane road is reopened, he said.

The state isn’t expected to restrict who can use the one-lane road.

Meanwhile, residents and community leaders plan to gather along the closed road Saturday morning for a moment of silence. Then they, with Gov. Jay Inslee and Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, will walk the road.

This will be one of the final events before cars and trucks are allowed to drive by the Steelhead Haven neighborhood wiped out in the disaster.

USGS Geologist Doubts Cause Of Oso Landslide Will Ever Be Pinned Down

 File photo of landslide near Oso, Washington. credit: Washington Governor's OfficeFile photo of landslide near Oso, Washington. | credit: Washington Governor's Office

File photo of landslide near Oso, Washington. credit: Washington Governor’s Office
File photo of landslide near Oso, Washington. | credit: Washington Governor’s Office

 

By Tom Banse, Northwest News Network

A federal geologist doubts the cause of the deadly landslide near Oso, Washington will ever be fully pinned down.

During testimony in Olympia Monday, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jonathan Godt said heavy rains in February and March certainly contributed to the slide. Geologists have also ruled out an earthquake as a trigger. But Godt says a big missing piece is groundwater flows, for which there’s no data.

“We didn’t have instruments in the ground at the time the landslide occurred and you can’t put the slide back up on the slope,” Godt said. “So from an observational standpoint, that opportunity is lost.”

Godt spoke to the Washington Forest Practices Board, a panel which is reexamining logging rules around landslide prone areas. A Washington state geologist and a private consulting geologist also presented there Monday. None would speculate if historic clear-cuts had anything to do with the March landslide.

Investigators are asking for more money from FEMA to probe why the Oso landslide traveled so far from its origin.

The death toll from the March 22 slide in Snohomish County stands at 41. Two additional people are still listed as missing.

This story first appeared on Northwest News Network.

Alternate route to Darrington scenic, slow

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

For someone who wants to drive from Darrington to Everett, each of the two available options takes about two hours.

One of them, however, is probably a lot easier on the car. There also are places to eat, talk on the phone and go to the bathroom.

Since the disastrous March 22 landslide that blocked Highway 530 east of Oso, most drivers have been using Highway 20 to get from Darrington to the I-5 corridor. This is the route recommended by the state Department of Transportation.

Four days after the slide, to create another option for drivers, the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington was opened for the season. The road is administered by Snohomish County.

Part of the Mountain Loop stretch was built on the former right-of-way of the Everett and Monte Cristo Railway, built in 1892 to haul gold copper, lead, and iron ores to smelters in Everett, according to HistoryLink.org. The tracks of the railroad were removed in 1932.

One section of the Mountain Loop Highway is a 14-mile, one-lane, gravel logging road. This stretch receives heavy snow and is closed every winter. The road was entirely shut down for four years, from 2003 to 2007, after it washed out in several places during a storm.

After the Oso slide, the state supplied snowblowers to open the road early for the year, county officials said.

The drive of 54 miles from Darrington to Granite Falls takes an hour and 40 minutes, according to the state. Add 20-plus minutes to Everett and it’s a little over two hours.

“Four-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended,” according to a description of the road on a U.S. Forest Service website. It has a 5-ton weight limit and is considered unsuitable for commercial trucks or freight.

Don Beavon, of Tulalip, drove the Mountain Loop Highway in his 1992 Honda Civic the day it opened. He said he made it from downtown Marysville to Darrington in an hour and 45 minutes.

He used quote marks around the word “highway” in an email about his experience.

“It was very muddy with potholes and temporary 25-mile per hour speed limit signs posted all along the way,” Beavon wrote. “I bottomed out a couple of times but numerous double-long dump trucks full of gravel were heading in to make improvements, as was a heavy-duty roller.”

The smoother route takes drivers from Darrington north to Rockport on Highway 530, west to Burlington on Highway 20 and south to Everett via I-5.

This route is 94 miles, compared to 70 from Darrington to Everett via Mountain Loop, but drivers can cover the distance in roughly the same amount of time. There are no gas stations or other services on the Mountain Loop, according to the state.

Meetings will discuss options for rebuilding 1-mile stretch of 530

Genna Martin / The HeraldPatricia Flajole (right) and son Pat look out over a flooded Highway 530 east of the Oso mudslide area on March 23, the day after the slide. The Flajole family owns a cabin just east of the slide area. The water, which had backed up because of river blockage, has mostly receded since then.

Genna Martin / The Herald
Patricia Flajole (right) and son Pat look out over a flooded Highway 530 east of the Oso mudslide area on March 23, the day after the slide. The Flajole family owns a cabin just east of the slide area. The water, which had backed up because of river blockage, has mostly receded since then.

 

By Bill Sheets, Chris Winters, Jerry Cornfield and Rikki King, The Herald

Nearly three weeks after the devastating landslide in Oso, discussion of the fate of Highway 530 is beginning in earnest.

A series of community meetings has been scheduled for next week to gather input and discuss options for the daunting task of rebuilding the 1-mile stretch of highway that was smothered by the March 22 mudslide.

The section has been closed to the public since then, severing Darrington’s direct lifeline to Arlington and the I-5 corridor.

State and Snohomish County officials have been discussing with families of victims the delicate matter of digging out the highway while more people and belongings likely are still buried in the mud.

To date, 36 victims of the mudslide have been confirmed dead, with county officials releasing the names of three more victims Thursday.

Eight people are still missing.

“It’s kind of sacred ground for them and we want to make sure we’re going in there in the most respectful way possible,” said Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

In the meantime, officials are also beginning to look at the longer-term economic effect of the slide. Residents are deeply concerned about the effects on Darrington’s economy and culture if the town remains cut off for months.

“Of course we need that road open. That’s our lifeline to the outside world,” said Kevin Ashe, a part-owner of the Darrington IGA.

The only other major route into town is on Highway 20 through Skagit County, which turns a 45-minute drive to Everett into a two-hour detour.

Crews so far have removed most of the mud from a few hundred feet of Highway 530 on the western edge of the slide area.

“We’ve made some progress but not a heck of a lot,” Phelps said.

Because much of the highway is still buried, it’s too early to tell whether the road will be salvageable, he said.

“I’m sure some of it’s been damaged and some of it’s not,” Phelps said.

On the east side, part of the highway is still under water where the North Fork Stillaguamish River pooled up behind the slide. Even if the road can be repaired, the river’s ultimate course through the altered landscape will play a large part in determining if the road can remain in its current location, Phelps said.

If the road has to be rebuilt, topography of the surrounding area will be a factor, he said. Some steep hills are located south of the current highway right-of-way.

Engineers have begun studying possible routes, he said. When these become more developed, they’ll be shared with the public at later meetings.

“We’ve started looking at the terrain,” Phelps said.

Because of all these factors, it’s impossible to estimate when the highway could reopen or how much it might cost, he said.

The economic damage isn’t limited to just the highway. Damage to houses and other properties that were destroyed in the slide area is estimated at $6.77 million, according to a county assessor’s report released Thursday. About $919,000 of that was from the flooding.

More than 34 houses were destroyed and at least 10 manufactured homes, in addition to vacant lots, camping sites and other kinds of buildings, according to the report.

Because of the extent of the slide and the flooding, some areas have not been assessed yet, especially east of the slide near where a berm is being built.

While the federal government likely will reimburse the costs of rebuilding Highway 530, the longer-term recovery period is likely to come out of local pockets.

The economic hit to Darrington could be serious due to the reduced access and increased costs of getting to the town.

One worry, for example, is at what point people who commute into Darrington for jobs, or those who commute from Darrington to Arlington or the rest of the county, will decide the hassle of the commute isn’t worth the job.

In looking toward the longer term, the Puget Sound Regional Council has recommended that $5 million in federal funding be used to support economic recovery in Darrington.

The PSRC, an intergovernmental body that distributes about $240 million in federal transportation funding annually, will perform an unusual workaround to free up money that can contribute to Darrington’s recovery.

The PSRC’s federal money is earmarked for specific transportation projects, but some of those projects won’t come to fruition this year, leaving the PSRC money without a designated project. Snohomish County identified an ongoing project — the North Road project between Lynnwood and Mill Creek — that was funded with $9.8 million in local funds on top of $3.2 million in federal money.

By directing $5 million more in federal money to the North Road project, the PSRC will free up the same amount in county money from that project, which can in turn be redirected to projects in the Darrington area.

“County money is much more flexible than these federal dollars,” PSRC spokesman Rick Olson said.

The county money will then be targeted at projects that will have an economic benefit for Darrington.

Darrington’s plan to add curbs, gutters, sidewalks and a storm drainage system to Fir Street has been identified as one immediate need. Other projects that might be considered are upgrading the Whitehorse Trail or more street improvements in the town itself.

These projects would not be eligible for disaster funds, but by directing more county money to them, they would have a positive economic impact and take a little of the burden off Darrington. An upgraded Whitehorse Trail, for example, could be a tourist draw for the town, Olson said.

The issue moves to the PSRC’s executive committee next week, where it stands a good chance of passing.

“I think the PSRC has a good history of counties supporting each other, especially in times of need like this,” said Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers, who sits on the committee.

These smaller measures may help soften the impact of the closure of Highway 530, but it will by no means eliminate it.

After the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge on I-5 last May, a temporary span was in place less than a month later.

Highway 530 is an altogether different animal, Phelps said. Some kind of temporary road may be considered, but it is still too soon to make that decision.

“Here we have a much bigger emergency response underway,” he said.

There’s no one federal agency to turn to for help. Money could potentially come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Highway Administration and others, Phelps said.

“It’s going to be kind of an ongoing discussion,” Phelps said.

Meetings
Snohomish County and the state Department of Transportation have scheduled three meetings to discuss the situation regarding Highway 530, which was blocked by the March 22 landslide.

*7-9 p.m. Monday, April 14, at the Darrington Community Center, 570 Sauk Ave.;

*7-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, at Oso Community Chapel, 22318 Highway 530;

*6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, in the Main Hall at the Stillaguamish Senior Center, 18308 Smokey Point Blvd., Arlington.

 

Obama confirms visit to Oso slide on April 22

 

Source: Marysville Globe

OSO — President Barack Obama has confirmed reports from Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene and U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell that he will visit the scene of the Oso mudslide on April 22.

On April 8, the White House issued the following statement:

“On Tuesday, April 22, President Obama will travel to Oso, Washington, to view the devastation from the recent mudslide and meet with the families affected by this disaster, as well as first responders and recovery workers. Further details about the President’s travel to Washington will be available in the coming days.”

Earlier that day, Inslee had issued a statement of his own, reporting that the President had informed him that morning of his planned visit.

“This will give the President the opportunity to see firsthand the devastation wrought by the slide, as well as the incredible community spirit flourishing in Oso, Arlington and Darrington,” Inslee said. “From the earliest days following the slide, the President has closely monitored events in the area, and shown his concerns for the victims and their families. He and his team have been important partners in the response effort, and I believe this visit will strengthen those ties, as we face the tough work ahead.”

DelBene had also been informed by Obama that same day of his upcoming visit.

“Additionally, the President informed me that he will move quickly to sign into law legislation that was recently passed by Congress, to save the historic Green Mountain Lookout near Darrington,” DelBene said, in a statement issued on April 8.

Murray and Cantwell issued a joint statement that day, expressing their appreciation to Obama for his decision to visit the area on April 22.

“We are confident that President Obama will see what we have seen: The tremendous resolve and determination of the people of Oso, Darrington and Arlington in the face of tragedy,” Murray and Cantwell said. “The President’s visit is another important step in demonstrating the federal government’s ongoing commitment to supporting the families, first responders, volunteers and businesses, as they recover from this disaster. We appreciate the decision to make major disaster resources available, and by the IRS to grant tax relief, and we’ll continue to work for the federal government to provide every resource possible for these communities.”

Goldmark Accuses Anti-Logging Interests Of Exploiting Oso Slide

File photo of the massive landslide that hit Snohomish County in March.Office of the Governor Flickr

File photo of the massive landslide that hit Snohomish County in March.
Office of the Governor Flickr

 

By Austin Jenkins, NW News Network

Washington Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark is speaking publicly for the first time since the Oso landslide in Snohomish County.

The two-term Democrat suggests anti-logging interests want to use the disaster to advance their cause.

Goldmark is indignant in the wake of news reports that have focused on past logging on the plateau above the Oso landslide.

“Frankly, the results of a small timber harvest that occurred in 2005 — and the small timber harvest was about 7 acres — and whether or not that had any role in creating the slide is entirely speculative at this time,” said Goldmark on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

He went on to say his agency’s prime focus right now is to help with the recovery effort and monitor the slide zone for further movement.

He says there will be studies later to determine the cause of the deadly collapse of the hillside. In the meantime, Goldmark calls any speculation that logging played a contributing role “disappointing.”

“There are certain critics, and I’ll leave it at that, who are opposed to timber harvest and so some of them seize on the opportunity to advance that view in the context of the emotional response around a terrible tragic event,” said Goldmark.

One high profile environmentalist denies this charge.

“Respectfully, it’s extremely disappointing that our elected lands commissioner would accuse some of us of this,” says Peter Goldman, head of the Washington Forest Law Center. He’s also been a Goldmark campaign contributor.

“I turn the question back to the Commissioner,” adds Goldman. “Why would we not use the principle of precaution and stay out of these areas. We’re talking about lives here and not just fish.”

Commissioner Goldmark says there are no plans for a moratorium on logging in areas similar to where the Oso slide happened.

Goldmark was first elected in 2008 with the strong backing of environmentalists following another high profile landslide. The so-called Stillman Creek slide in southwest Washington put a spotlight on the controversial practice of steep-slope logging and helped catapult Goldmark to office.

Oso Landslide Benefit Featuring Country Music Star Chance McKinney

Chance_McKinney

 

Neighbors Helping Neighbors Concert at Tulalip Resort Casino

 

WHO:  Tulalip Resort Casino, country music star Chance McKinney, with Ron Stubbs as the opening act

WHAT:

  • A live concert to raise Oso Landslide Relief funds, with a goal of a sell-out event
  • $20 entry charge at the door, with 100% of the admission proceeds benefiting the Oso community
  • Each attendee will receive a drawing ticket to win an autographed guitar by Chance McKinney
  • The total donation will become part of an account set up by Union Bank of Edmonds and Cascade Valley Hospital.  Proceeds will be used to assist the victims and their families. Additional donations may be made at the event


WHEN: 
Friday, April 4th beginning at 6:00 pm

WHERE:  Canoes Cabaret
Tulalip Resort Casino
10200 Quil Ceda Boulevard
Tulalip, Washington  98271

WHY:    A large landslide destroying a sizable part of the Oso community, covering nearly a square mile with mud and debris, as well as claiming at least 27 lives“It’s not often we’re called upon to help neighbors in such dire need, but when the opportunity arises, nobody can say the Pacific Northwest isn’t up for the challenge!” says Chance McKinney.

Tulalip COO and President Ken Kettler concurs, “Our goal is to deliver funds directly back to the Oso community, where the need is epic and every dollar helps chip away at the sheer magnitude.”

Living In The Shadow Of Landslide Risk

"Maybe that hillside is a danger to me," says Ben Van Dusen, looking towards the steep foothills of Mt. Index less than a 1/4 mile from his home. "I didn’t think it was but maybe it is.” | credit: Ashley Ahearn

“Maybe that hillside is a danger to me,” says Ben Van Dusen, looking towards the steep foothills of Mt. Index less than a 1/4 mile from his home. “I didn’t think it was but maybe it is.” | credit: Ashley Ahearn

 

By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

MT. INDEX RIVER SITES, Wash. — The landslide in Oso, Wash. served as a devastating reminder of one fact of life in the Northwest: landslides happen.

In some places, it’s a risk people have learned to live with — places like the Mt. Index River Sites, a loose cluster of homes along the Skykomish River northeast of Seattle in the Cascade Mountains.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.35.31 PM
Map image showing a landslide deposit west of Index.
Credit: Tony Schick

 

Since December, landslides have destroyed a dozen homes and wiped out the only access road to this community. No one was hurt.

Loren Brayton pushes his camouflage hat back on his head and puts down his chainsaw for a minute to talk. He’s cutting away tree trunks that are blocking the road to his cabin site.

“All that slid last night. I got stuck on the other side,” he said.

Brayton’s family has owned a sliver of rocky property next to Sunset Falls since the early 1970s. He’s building a cabin there that he hopes to retire in someday.

“I’ve spoken with three geologists. I also drilled into the granite and rebarred in. I’m anchored. These guys built on clay,” he says, gesturing at the destroyed homes littering the hillside above where he’s standing, “So they moved. I won’t.”

Surveying the devastation behind Brayton — the hillside a wall of muck and debris, tin roofs folded in half, bits of houses jutting out amidst stumps and mud-slathered couch cushions — Brayton’s sentiments about the viability of his dwelling seem to faintly echo the sentiments of the three little pigs, but Brayton isn’t worried.

IMG_5298
Loren Brayton. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

 

“When it’s time to go you’ll go. When you’re dead you’re buried under dirt anyway.”

For Brayton, the natural beauty of this place — replete with salmon, bald eagles, osprey and quiet — is worth the risk. But he does acknowledge some parallels with the devastation in Oso, about an hour and a half away. There, the death toll from the March 22 landslide is approaching 30 people.

“For all the people here, there was personal property lost and there was real estate lost. We had no deaths. So I compare this to Oso, but I feel for them more than I do for us. We’ll recover,” Brayton says.

The Skykomish River pounds down over Sunset Falls, a not-too-subtle reminder of how much power water has over this landscape, and how devastating this river can be. Floods occur fairly regularly here, damaging property and forcing people to evacuate. Landslides have taken out other sections of this dirt road in the past.

For the 230 or so people who live on the other side of this slide, ATV is the only way to get in and out. Many of them are without power or water and have been, off and on, for weeks.

But the access road is private so there’s no government money available to fix it. Since December the community has spent close to $60,000 clearing landslide debris off this road again and again.

“I watched our contractor for two months dig one lane through. Faster than he could put it in his dump truck and haul it away, more would come down,” says Lynne Kelly, who has lived here for 30 years and now serves on the community board. “It just keeps coming down and I think people have finally figured out that at some point it has to stop. There is no money.”

IMG_5335
Lynne Kelly. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

 

The community has fought over what to do about the road — whether to keep clearing and repairing it or give up altogether. They’ve gone to court over how the costs of road maintenance should be divvied up among residents. There’s talk of building a bridge over the Skykomish so that people who are blocked in on the far side of the slide can have another means of accessing Highway 2.

But that would cost almost half a million dollars, and there’s not enough money in this community to pay for it. Kelly’s not optimistic about the chances of getting a loan. “For Sale” signs dot this dirt road.

“People are just wrapping their heads around evacuating and changing their lifestyle and as much as I hate to say it, the Oso slide has been a big wake up call,” she says.

Moving elsewhere isn’t an option for everyone. Ben Van Dusen sits in a lawn chair looking out over a collection of old cars slowly rusting in the rain. When the clouds part briefly, out pops craggy white Mount Index towering over his property. Van Dusen has a million-dollar view, but when he bought this little house 19 years ago he paid less than $60,000 for it.

“It’s like standing below Yosemite or the Matterhorn and I never get tired of looking at it,” he says, sipping his tea.

Life may be beautiful here, but it hasn’t been easy. In the past Van Dusen has had to evacuate because of flooding. Landslides took out the road a half-mile away in 2009.

“This is a dangerous place and that’s become much more apparent to me now. Maybe that hillside is a danger to me,” he says, looking towards the steep foothills of Mount Index less than a quarter-mile away. “I didn’t think it was but maybe it is.”

But Van Dusen says he can’t afford to leave. He delivers magazines and is starting to get some gigs as an actor, but things have been really hard since the recession.

“I’m about ready to go under. I turned the hot water off. I’m living without hot water. I don’t have TV, Comcast, I don’t have any of that. I get DVDs from the library. I use Wi-Fi in town for Internet access so I’m cut to the bare bones here,” he says.

Van Dusen says that as much as he loves the quiet and the wild spirit that drew him here in the first place, he wishes the government would buy all the residents out. People were meant to visit, not live here, he says.

“I would relocate maybe to Skagit County or somewhere out in the flatlands,” he says. “Someplace where I could grow some food and work on these cars.”