Sunday marked a solemn day in Snohomish County but also for our state on the one-year anniversary of the Oso landslide, deadliest in U.S. history. The slide on March 22, 2014, claimed 43 lives and followed days of rain on an unstable slope.
The lessons from this sobering tragedy are many: from the regulatory errors of the past that allowed development in a slide-prone area near State Route 530 to the inadequacy of mapping information used for building permit decisions.
The sheer destructiveness of the mid-morning event at Steelhead Haven, located along the Stillaguamish River, was suggestive of something we might read about from a less developed country where building standards are presumed to be less high, where people often live closer to harm’s way.
But lessons are being learned. Already some state practices governing decisions around steep slope logging have been changed. One lesson still being sorted out by state lawmakers would clarify that resources for state firefighting could be used for non-fire uses, which could avoid delays that reportedly took place a year ago when basically a mountain tumbled down on a sleepy village.
Never miss a local story.
In the aftermath of the disaster, state and local officials brought a lot of human help to the unfolding death toll and provided support for beleaguered communities. Besides federal emergency aid, a significant amount of charitable donations from individuals and institutions also flowed almost immediately without solicitation.
The Seattle Times reported this week that donations hit $350,000 at Immaculate Conception Church alone in nearby Arlington within a month of the slide. Overall, charities took in some $9.5 million in aid. Some of that money is still being parceled out.
Of course, the damage wrought is much larger, and lives of families torn apart may never fully heal.
Against that background, we hope that state lawmakers deliver on the $6.6 million sought by Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark for additional staff geologists and upgrades to a kind of laser mapping technology, known as LIDAR, which allows more penetrating views of land conditions underneath the cover of vegetation.
Other issues, which could arise in other parts of the state, deal with land-use laws and also local efforts to link better geological mapping with permits and development decisions. Efforts have gone slowly in Snohomish County to tighten rules that might prevent development in riskier areas; lessons are there for all counties.
Snohomish officials have sought federal money to buy out land owners in the immediate slide area so the damage zone can be converted to open space. This is a good idea.
But some owners of land and homes in the slide area still face mortgage debt. Banks offered some mortgage relief but in the early days after the disaster but not-for-profit counseling agencies that help with housing debt issues were not part of the conversation.
Today, many owners of former homes or relatives of those killed in the disaster are suing the Department of Natural Resources for its alleged negligence related to logging in the groundwater recharge zone of the hillside that gave way.
Washingtonians can be proud of the way they rallied after this disaster. But this disaster lives on. Work remains to repair damage to people and land. Sadder but wiser, we can all be smarter the next time.