ARLINGTON — The scope of the Snohomish County mudslide is difficult to grasp. Aerial photographs lack the scale of a 1-mile-square disaster scene. Up close, evidence that an entire missing neighborhood — a red child’s hat, a twisted metal stair railing, the torn American flag now hanging in a command tent — have been so chaotically mixed in with fallen cedars and piles of mud that it’s equally easy to lose the scope.
What should the site look like in the future? Should Highway 530, which is still under 20 feet of mud in spots, be rebuilt, or moved? What of the Steelhead Haven neighborhood, mostly untouched so far by the rescue and recovery efforts?
Should the entire site be memorialized into something like a park?
Snohomish County government, which should be taking the lead, is in bunker mode, unwilling to answer basic questions about the known landslide risks, let alone the future of the site.
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But discussions about memorializing the site are clearly going on. “That is being talked about behind the scenes,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, the state House Republican leader who represents Arlington and Darrington. He doesn’t have an opinion, he said, because the situation is still too “raw.”
When I visited the Arlington side of the slide last week, 900 people and 31 excavators were consumed in a still-active recovery operation. That work focuses on the fringe of the site; 75 foot-high haystacks of mud dotting the former Steelhead Haven neighborhood feel eerily like memorials.
A team of cadaver dogs from Sacramento, Calif., trotted toward the site. Out on the mud field, a pile of muck is scooped and dropped in front of three-person teams, who sift it for remains or belongings. As important as this work is, it is not cleaning up the site. That has not really begun. Once it has, it will cost about $22 million, according to a back-of-the-napkin estimate by the state, which is probably grossly low.
“You can’t leave it like that,” one rescue worker said, pointing to a ripped mattress on a pile of debris next to Highway 530.
He’s right, of course. The site is going to have to be cleaned. But how much? By one estimate, there’s 1 million dump trucks of mud out there.
It’s not clear if memorializing the site means ending recovery operations before the 11 remaining missing people are found. That would sit badly in Arlington and Darrington. “They need to find everyone who is missing, and reopen the road,” said John Harper, chief of the Oso Fire Department, a 15-person volunteer force.
He stood next to Seth Jefferds, a captain in the department. Jefferds, a Steelhead Haven resident, lost his wife and granddaughter in the tragedy, wore dark glasses.
“I can’t tell you how tough it’s been, and how tough it’s going to be,” he said, choking up. His fellow firefighters gripped his shoulder.
When I asked him about memorializing the site, he clearly thought it was too early. “We’re looking for family members, because they’re not forgotten,” he said.
Steering clear of his grief, and the grief of other victims’ families, is the clear priority.
But it is not too soon to decide what should be done with Highway 530. That impacts, potentially, memorializing the site. The Washington State Department of Transportation is preparing to ask Darrington and Arlington residents about a replacement highway.
Snohomish County should do the same regarding the quiet discussions of memorialization.
— Jonathan Martin
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).