Snohomish County landslide: One year later | Approaching a milestone moment after the slide that killed 43 people, the Stillaguamish Valley is healing, but there is much work left to do.
DARRINGTON — Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin pauses, and catches his breath, as he describes the simple act of turning a page of his calendar.
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Click the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ complete coverage of the Oso landslide, including investigative stories, profiles of the victims, interactive maps and a photo gallery.
“You knew it was coming,” he said. “But the realization that it’s March, and we’re looking at a year, brings back a lot of emotion.”
With the approach of Sunday’s one-year mark since the Highway 530 landslide that killed 43 people, residents along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River are dealing with sometimes-conflicting emotions: grief but pride, loss but togetherness, pain but resolve.
Many avoid the word “anniversary,” feeling it could convey a sense of celebration.
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“You can tell it is weighing on people,” said bartender Debbie Meredith at Darrington’s Red Top Tavern. “The one-month was hard, the six-month was hard, but this one is really going to impact people.”
As the milestone nears, one can find hopeful signs: a few new or revived businesses, a weekly farmers market planned in Darrington, more counselors available in the schools, churches of different denominations working closely together.
In addition, local groups are seeking to tap the community spirit seen after the slide into a variety of efforts, such as the campaign to fully pave the Mountain Loop Highway, a scenic route that could boost the flow of visitor dollars into Darrington.
Number of people who died in the Oso landslide of March 22, 2014.
It’s impossible, locals say, to remove dozens of people — in an instant — from a small community and expect things ever to return to normal.
“Every family, every survivor, is on an individual journey,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor of both Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney Mission in Darrington. “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Sauer is among the organizers of a “Gathering in Hope” Friday evening at the Darrington Community Center, with clergy from other area churches.
Over the past year, Sauer said, good progress has been made in meeting residents’ needs for food, clothing and shelter. But emotional and psychological pain are still acute. “For many people, the scars are going to be with them the rest of their lives,” he said.
The magnitude of the disaster is still difficult to fathom, no matter how many times one travels the rebuilt Highway 530 and looks over at the torn hillside.
Just off the highway, small red cedar trees planted last fall, one for each victim, bear silent tributes to the departed: a Christmas ornament, a Valentine’s heart, a painted birdhouse, a Seahawks ribbon, a photo in a plastic CD case.
Organizers of this weekend’s events have sought a balance between the privacy of victims’ families and the broadly held need to acknowledge what the community has gone through together.
On Sunday, Highway 530 through the slide zone will be closed from 9 a.m. to noon. A solemn observance, intended for those most directly affected by the slide, will include an honor guard, a color guard and a moment of silence at the time the slide hit, 10:37 a.m.
Although that event is not for the general public, the public will be welcome at gatherings afterward, including open houses at fire stations in Darrington and Oso.
Signs of renewal
The Oso General Store just reopened, and the Glacier Peak Cafe in Darrington is expected to reopen soon.
Medal of Valor
Before a joint session of the Legislature, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday is to award the Medal of Valor to the communities of Oso, Darrington and Arlington, and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe for their responses to the March 2014 slide that killed 43 people.
Neither was a casualty of the slide, since both had been closed well before it hit. But their openings are viewed as a sign of rebirth and vitality.
At the cafe, owners Michelle and Doug Bradley, who live 1½ miles from the slide, said those who lost family members are in their thoughts daily. Doug Bradley helped in the search for slide victims.
“There are families that are taking it a day at a time,” Michelle Bradley said. “It’s still hard to grasp what they are going through.”
She hopes the restaurant along Highway 530 at Darrington’s west edge will offer a place for people not just to enjoy her home cooking, but to connect with others. “There will always be a big loss, but we’re seeing the community come together to move forward.”
Next door is Whitehorse Studio, a shop that owes its existence partly to the slide.
Five-year valley resident Brook Alongi opened the gallery, his long-postponed “dream business,” last summer, showcasing the leather works he produces: saddles, belts, bags and biker gear.
Alongi, 38, was a Boeing business-operations manager before the slide. But helping in the early days of the search of slide grounds made him stop postponing, “made me think about what was important to me.”
The farmers market in Darrington is being organized by the Darrington Renewal Project, a project of the nonprofit A World Feast.
Market planner Val Peppinger said an opening date for the market isn’t set yet, but plans call for it to showcase organic and locally sourced produce, breads, cheese and more, along with booths at an adjacent part for local artists and craftspeople.
Healing, civic pride
Effects of the slide are evident at Darrington schools, which lost seventh-grader Denver Harris, kindergarten student Kaylee Spillers, custodian Summer Raffo and longtime board member Linda McPherson, along with others with ties to the district.
David Holmer, Darrington’s school superintendent and high-school principal, said that from the day of the slide, students pitched in without being asked.
“They organized food donations, they made sandwiches, they served meals … they washed cars and trucks,” and they still find ways to help, he said.
Assistance from Catholic Community Services helped the district more than double the hours that counselors have been available. Still, some students remain on a waiting list; Holmer said he doesn’t know how many of those may be dealing with issues related to the slide.
Weekend events mark milestone
Among the activities planned this weekend in the Stillaguamish Valley:
Friday, March 20
7 p.m.: “Gathering in Hope,” a service of remembrance with music, prayers and readings at the Darrington Community Center gym, sponsored by the Darrington and Arlington Ministerial associations
Saturday, March 21
11 a.m.: A Darrington Library meeting room will be dedicated to retired librarian Linda McPherson, who died in the slide.
1 p.m.: “Oso Strong — 1 Year After” at Rhodes River Ranch at Oso is a concert, buffet and auction to benefit the Oso Fire Department and Oso Firemen’s Association. Backers describe it not as a celebration but as a time of healing and community.
Sunday, March 22
9 a.m. to noon: Highway 530 will be closed through the slide zone. At the slide site, a solemn event will be held for families of those who died, plus first responders, slide volunteers and local residents. This observance is not being planned for the general public, but the public is invited to other Sunday events.
Noon to 4 p.m.: A “Soup Social & Open House” at the Oso Fire Department
1 p.m.: Community potluck dinner at the Darrington Community Center
1 to 3 p.m.: Open house at the Darrington Fire Department, with an ongoing presentation about the slide, along with a display of donated artifacts from the slide
Overall, Holmer said, the students’ work on the slide will help them carry forward a heightened sense of community, along with the realization “that every day is precious.”
The Red Cross has been working to provide counselors to reach the broader community, said Ellin Ruffner, a disaster mental-health manager.
She said the Red Cross will have 10 counselors at this weekend’s events “to offer food and drink … or just to be a compassionate presence.”
The Facebook page for the group Darrington Strong shows the variety of efforts of what started as a business-booster association.
Getting 14 miles of the Mountain Loop Highway paved through the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is a priority, said board member Martha Rasmussen. So is restoration of the North Mountain Fire Lookout outside town.
The group is also proposing whiskey-barrel planters of flowers around town and wants to help new businesses get started. “We want people to come and dream with us,” Rasmussen said.
A test of the valley’s long-term ability to draw visitors could come this summer.
Shortly after the slide, Gov. Jay Inslee authorized $150,000 to help promote the Stillaguamish Valley and its major tourist events.
The state aid was a lifesaver, said Margie Bates, vice president of the Darrington Timberbowl Rodeo. The rodeo received an additional $25,000 for repairs, safety improvements, fencing, painting and signs.
“We’d like all those people who came last year to come back” to this year’s rodeo, June 27 and 28, Bates said.
At City Hall, Mayor Rankin has the same wish, not just for the rodeo, but through the year.
“We still struggle,” he said. “But we are moving in a good direction.”