National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 First-term council member faces early test with mudslide disaster

By Charlie Ban

Photo courtesy of Snohomish County, Wash.
Very difficult conditions, including heavy rains and runoff, continue to hamper rescue and recovery efforts following Snohomish County, Wash.’s mudslide March 22.

Ken Klein spent an hour-long meeting with Snohomish County, Wash.’s emergency services department — less than three months into his tenure on the County Council — eager to get an idea about how prepared the county was for a disaster. He left feeling confident.

Two days later, March 22, a massive mudslide crossed the Stillaguamish River and into a residential area near the town of Oso, right in the middle of Klein’s district, that morning.  The state road covered by the slide, SR 530, became the slide’s namesake — the 530 slide.

That morning, Klein joined the sheriff for breakfast, then conversed with his friend running for office. When he glanced at Facebook on his phone, he saw quick mentions of a mudslide in Oso, but had no idea of the magnitude.

“Mudslides happen a lot,” he said. “There was no indication when I first heard about it that it was as big as it was.”

In the end, it was big enough to prompt a major disaster declaration from President Obama and a continued effort, two weeks later, to try to bring closure to the 29 dead and 17 missing, as of April 3. The slide covered roughly one square mile on both sides of the river.

A helicopter in the middle of a training exercise was able to fly to the slide area and help rescue 19 people, Klein said.

The response quickly went from rescue to one of recovery, as the accompanying flooding from the blockage of the Stillaguamish River compounded the danger to anyone who survived the slide. Heavy rains slowed the search, according to county emergency management releases, and Klein said the water running off of the hillside from which the slide originated posed even more danger.

Search teams scoured the slide area, each consisting of three technical rescuers, one hazardous materials unit, one K-9 unit, a chainsaw operator and a spotter, one medical unit, five volunteers, five members of the National Guard and an excavator. Klein has toured the slide area, accompanied by the National Guard. The mud and water composition keeps shifting the debris, making too much exploration unsafe, he said.

“Disaster movies can’t prepare you for this,” he said. “It’s like nothing you can ever anticipate. Two days before, our public safety director told me that we were set up to handle a major disaster. We could respond, but we couldn’t do everything.”

As April began, dry, sunny weather has helped search conditions, and water levels have been dropping both naturally and with the aid of pumps.

Aside from emergency management, other county departments have stepped in.

The county’s community transit agency began new bus service to connect the affected residents with grocery and medical services in nearby Skagit County. The county assessor’s office is proactively reducing the assessed value of homes affected by the slide.

“The biggest thing for me is watching how people are talking about the tragedy now, it’s our 9/11, our Oklahoma City and the largest disaster we’ve experienced in Snohomish County,” Klein said. “It was a small logging town; it’s an industry that has been going away. We need to get that town back on track and help it be sustainable. We don’t want this slide to be the thing that whipped Oso from our collective memory.

“I think the community is strong, the whole valley is a tight knit, historical group of communities, everyone is banding together.”