A Year Later, Washington Town Hit By Devastating Mudslide Still Recovering

03/22/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated May 22, 2015
Sawaya Photography via Getty Images

By Eric M. Johnson

OSO, Wash., March 22 (Reuters) - A year after a mudslide sent a wall of debris onto the fields around Don Young's house in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, killing many of his neighbors, grass is finally sprouting again.

But Young continues to clear his fields of debris, such as home siding and insulation, that is a bitter reminder of the tragedy last March 22, when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed near Oso, about 60 miles (97 kms) northeast of Seattle, killing 43 people.

"We should get growth this spring so we don't have to see this scar we've been looking at," Young, 55, said as he recalled watching the approaching torrent. "You don't want to keep re-living the damn thing, you know?"

Even as the land recovers, many of those affected by the mudslide say their nerves continue to be jangled by unresolved lawsuits, pending legislation, difficulties accessing relief funds and a parade of disaster site gawkers and profiteers.

Amid an anniversary weekend of prayers, commemorations and a solemn moment of silence, families of victims and survivors say it is hard to reconcile themselves to their losses.

"There is healing that still needs to happen," Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper said. "There are a lot of emotions right now, sometimes they are right there on your face, and sometimes they are just below the surface."

The Washington state legislature is considering a transport package that includes funds of $36 million over 12 years for laser mapping of landslide-prone areas.

Bills would require the state to build a public database of laser-mapped areas and hazards, and tweak state law to let firefighters respond to all kinds of catastrophes, including landslides.

A December 2014 report found the Washington State Patrol was unable to send in firefighters following the slide after a state lawyer said dispatching them would violate state law.


At the epicenter of the disaster, a street sign marking the road that led to a subdivision where a cluster of homes was obliterated now offers a lookout point for motorists to take photos of the hillside gash.

Forty-three small cedar trees, memorials to the dead, many decorated with multi-colored ribbons, heart-shaped wreaths and name tags, have been planted on the side of the re-built highway.

Several families still live in houses perched around the mile-wide debris area.

Some complain visitors have let their dogs defecate on their property. Others felt it was insensitive when a company briefly put up a "for sale" sign on the property of a bankrupt owner. Others were angered over river raft tours a company offered site visitors for $90. Those have now been suspended.

Victims' families have complained in wrongful death suits that the state, county and hill landowner were aware of the disaster risk but made no efforts to divert the river or relocate homes.

They also say logging added to the hill's instability. The landowner, Grandy Lake Forest Associates, has denied wrongdoing, and sought to dismiss the case, still in preliminary stages.

Major relief group American Red Cross, and charities United Way of Snohomish County, and Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation have handed out, or committed to disburse, roughly $8 million from donations of more than $9.4 million for aid such as housing stipends, grief counseling, food and clothing.

Some families say they have faced delays when seeking help from relief agencies.

For example, the parents of Summer Raffo, who was swept away while driving, had their electricity shut off when a six-month needs-based financial plan arranged with relief funds by a county case worker was changed by a new case manager.

Representatives for Snohomish County and the Salvation Army did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"The frustration is not just with my family, it's every family," said Summer's brother, Dayn Brunner, 43. "The amount of money they have raised, versus what has gone directly to the families, is two different stories." (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Oso, Wash.; Editing by Ken Wills and David Gregorio)

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