Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Oso and met with scientists to discuss how to better prevent disasters in the era of climate change.

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U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell traveled to Washington Thursday to discuss heightened risk of natural disasters because of climate change.

In Oso, Snohomish County, slammed by a mudslide that claimed 43 lives last year, Jewell and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, watched an earthquake- preparedness drill and walked the disaster site.

And later in Seattle, Jewell met with a panel of scientists, environmental and tribal leaders on the topics of fire, floods, earthquakes, landslides, sea-level rise and more. Preparedness was the watchword.


Oso landslide coverage

The Seattle Times’ complete coverage of the Oso landslide, including investigative stories, profiles of the victims, interactive maps and a photo gallery.

“The more we know, the more we understand the risk,” Jewell said at the panel discussion, held at the Western Fisheries Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “The challenge is the human dimension, being smarter about where we build, and how we build to protect ourselves.”

In California on Wednesday, Jewell discussed the devastation of wildfires.

Some natural hazards, such as earthquakes, can’t be prevented. But hazards turn into disasters because of lack of preparedness and placing people and property in harm’s way.

The Oso landslide was not an unforeseen risk; warnings of the danger of a slide had been made for decades. Scientists also have warned for years that development in flood plains worsens flood damage, both by placing property at risk and displacing volume, increasing the height of flood rise.

“Flooding is a recurring hazard, and it is exacerbated by development and climate change,” noted panelist Cindi Barton, director of the Washington Water Science Center at the USGS. As temperatures warm, more precipitation is coming as rain; ground that used to be frozen isn’t, and erodes during storms, silting up stream and river beds, further raising water levels.

Yet communities still use flood maps that are decades out of date, even as what used to be 100-year floods are becoming 50-, 30- or 10-year events.

“None of these changes are reflected,” said Robert Freitag, director of a new flood-plain risk master’s degree program at the University of Washington, and head of its Institute for Hazard Mitigation. He sees a problem not only with availability of current data, but willingness to use it.

“It is very hard for people to make long-term decisions when it conflicts with what they need today,” Freitag said. “We are going to have to have a policy where we look at property differently, where we move back.”

David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, said the lessons of Oso have not sunk in. “What have we learned since Oso? I have not seen much change in behavior in assessing landslides or staying out of slide-prone zones.”

He questioned the wisdom of the approval by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of a timber sale in Whatcom County despite location of the proposed cut atop two very large, very deep landslide scars, above an elementary school and several homes.

The sale is being appealed by The Washington Forest Law Center on behalf of homeowners who live below the Sumas Mountain site.

A slope-stability assessment by DNR noted the slide areas on Sumas Mountain, but also determined the area to be cut was relatively small and showed no signs of recent slide activity. The department determined the harvest was safe.

Dan McShane, an engineering geologist based in Bellingham who is consulting on the appeal, also questioned the decision to log. “It would make me a little bit uncomfortable. Do you really want to play with this thing? Sumas Mountain is notorious.”

The concern is that harvesting could reactivate the old slide, triggering a new slope failure, McShane and Montgomery said. “The essence of resilience is learning to adapt our actions to the way this place works,” Montgomery said. That goes for floods, too.

In the aftermath of floods in 2007 that left a stretch of I-5 underwater, communities in the Chehalis River Basin have unleashed a gusher of reports and a flood of meetings. But comprehensive steps to address repeated flooding remain years away. Many communities’ flood-plain maps haven’t been updated since the 1970s.

Jim Kramer, a consultant helping to marshal a flood-control strategy for the basin, counts more than 830 studies of potential actions to reduce the damage with no real change in 100 years of flooding until now, he says. An environmental review is getting under way of possible actions to tackle the problem, including building a major new dam on the Chehalis River.

At least the cows are already safer: Since the last big flood, farmers have built raised dirt mounds to give thousands of animals a safe place to wait out high water — to prevent the heartaches of previous floods when their animals drowned. “It was horrible,” said Scott Boettcher, staff to the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority.

The authority was created by 11 local governments and funded with $2.5 million from the Legislature in 2008 to work throughout the basin to do everything from updating flood-plain development ordinances, to training staff in small towns on flood preparedness.

“People tend to think of grand solutions and we want to do big, grand solutions but we can also do little things that make a difference now, while we live here,” Boettcher said.

Jewell said she recognizes not only the role for science, but also the human factor in disaster preparedness. “People say why didn’t you stop us from building there, but if you went somewhere and told them, they would say ‘that is a federal overreach,’ Jewell said. “You can have great science but until you understand what drives behavior it is very difficult to change it.

“There is also the propensity for people to have short-term memories.”