On the Oso landslide’s third anniversary, a survivor keeps a focus on family, while the lawsuit she joined put a spotlight on the uneasy interplay between scientists and policymakers about how to protect people who might be in peril.
Deborah Farnes looked forward to the day she would testify about the March 22, 2014, Oso landslide that killed her husband, Tom Durnell, while she was away at work at a hospital in Everett.
She hoped to share her grief over the loss of her spouse and 42 other people, and the anger that followed as she learned — for the first time — about the scope of the hazards posed by the hillside that came crashing down during that awful spring day three years ago.
“I wanted this to go to trial, and for this information to be made public. That there was this danger that existed,” Farnes said. “ I didn’t know about that until after everyone died, and it was too late.”
The trial was forestalled by $60 million in settlements reached just before the Oct. 10, 2016, scheduled start of opening arguments. But the years of legal sparring that led to that resolution put a spotlight on landslide risks in the Pacific Northwest, and the uneasy interplay between scientists who have the knowledge to assess that potential and government officials who must decide what — if anything — to do to protect the people who may live in harm’s way.
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The civil case, involving 29 plaintiffs, some with multiple claims, had loomed as one of the largest tort cases in Washington history. It was brought by Farnes and other survivors who alleged that the state and a timber company — Grandy Lake Forest Associates — had taken actions that increased the risks of a catastrophic slide and failed to inform their neighbors in Steelhead Haven along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish about that potential.
Those actions included logging on the private Grandy acreage and construction of a crib wall fence on state property that plaintiffs alleged had retained loose soils and helped expand the lethal range of the slide.
The defendants denied liability. And the weeks of testimony would have included scientists — called by both the plaintiffs and defense — speaking to what was known about the unstable hill in the North Stillaguamish drainage that gave way during a rain-soaked spring, and wrenching testimony from Farnes and other survivors.
But on the Sunday before the trial’s start, the plaintiffs announced a $50 million settlement with the state, whose defense was undercut by the deletions of emails by its expert witnesses that resulted in sanctions from King County Superior Judge Court Judge Roger Rogoff. Then, they reached a $10 million settlement with Grandy.
So instead of spending Monday in court, Farnes and some other plaintiffs went to their attorneys’ office, where one of them — John Phillips — offered a full rendition of the opening arguments he had planned for that day.
Predicting future slides
As the Oso landslide marks its third anniversary, most of the settlement money has been paid.
Still, some court actions linger. On Tuesday, plaintiffs’ attorneys —to meet a three-year filing deadline — submitted claims on behalf of relatives of seven deceased and four others. And later this month, they plan to file a brief with the state Supreme Court that seeks to overturn a Superior Court decision to remove Snohomish County from the litigation.
Meanwhile, attorneys, scientists and government officials wrestle with the lessons learned from Oso, with the settlement underscoring the high-stakes liabilities that intertwine with such disasters.
“If you are dealing with landslide hazards … you at some point, implicitly or explicitly, have to decide what level of risk is acceptable, and most decision-makers have to rely on people like me in order to do that,” said Dan Miller, a geomorphologist who wrote some of the early reports warning about Oso’s deep-seated landslide formation. “So what kind of information are they getting?”
A 1999 study prepared by Miller for the Army Corps of Engineers cited the potential for a catastrophic failure of what was known as the Hazel Landslide formation, and a 2000 study for the corps listed buying out the residents of Steelhead Haven as an option to reduce the risks of loss of life.
In the aftermath of the landslide, Snohomish County offered to buy out 100 parcels of developed and undeveloped land in the area hit by the slide at the 2014 assessed value. The owners of 74 of those properties chose to sell, according to Heather Kelly, a Snohomish County official.
Since the slide, new research has documented a history of more than 200 other deep-seated landslides along a 15.5-mile stretch of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish that includes the Oso site. Many occurred from a few hundred to a few thousand years ago, and some had enough power to move across the river.
“The valley’s geomorphology shows that it is capable of failing in a big catastrophic fashion, but predicting where it will fail is not easy,” said Sean LaHusen, a University of Washington researcher, a co-author of the study that was published this year in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Miller, at a landslide legal seminar this month in Seattle, said scientists needed to do a better a job of conveying hazards to government officials, as well as the uncertainty that surrounds their analysis.
Their research should reflect not only what has happened in recent decades but a longer-term geologic perspective that recognizes currently inactive slide areas, such as an upslope portion that failed at Oso, can also start to move again.
Miller noted that scientists also should take into account climate change, which could increase landslides by bringing more frequent, intense rainstorms in the decades ahead that help to undermine slope stability. In his presentation at the conference, he noted that even without such storms, slopes, over time, may lose their cohesion, and with average amounts of rain, be pushed to failure.
Miller hopes officials can gain a better understanding of the information they need and then demand that from scientists.
But Miller, who was deposed during the Oso lawsuit, said efforts to improve the consultations have been hampered by the fears of litigation.
“To progress, we have to experiment a little bit. It is going to involve some trial and error. And error, that’s a key word.”
“Much more afraid”
Any such consultations, Farnes said, need to result in clear communication of the risks to those who might be imperiled. She said she and her husband, Tom Durnell, had no idea their property had once been considered for a buyout when, as a newly married couple, they moved to Steelhead Haven in 2010.
They both loved their time at Steelhead Haven, with a community of neighbors that was tight as a family. On the Saturday of the landslide, Farnes, a certified nursing assistant, got an unexpected call to come into work in Everett. So her life was spared while her husband Tom, 65, died as their home was buried in mud and debris.
After the landslide, Farnes said she tried to go back to work but found it hard to focus. “My brain is just not the same brain that it was before,” she said. “I am very much more afraid in a lot of ways and I couldn’t do my job like I had before.”
She found companionship with another survivor, Jerry Farnes, a neighbor who had lost his wife, Julie Farnes, 59, and a son, Adam Farnes, 23, in the landslide while he was away in Southwest Washington remodeling a house.
The two were married in July 2015, and by then they were both plaintiffs in the Oso litigation.
Attorneys in such cases typically claim more than 30 percent of a settlement. All of the plaintiffs with a stake in the $60 million agreed to binding arbitration to divide the money.
For wrongful deaths, the factors considered by the arbitrator included pain and suffering, loss of love and lost future earnings and, for survivors, included medical expenses and future care.
“I don’t care to share what we got, but it’s not the fortune that most people think, when you take the settlement and divide it among all the people involved,” Jerry Farnes said.
Debbie Farnes, 53, said that — thanks to the settlement — she can focus much of her life on being a grandmother of seven. “I am still here for a reason, and my family is why. They are everything.”
Debbie and Jerry Farnes live in Stanwood, and also have a house they retreat to on Lake Cavanaugh in Skagit County, where they expect to spend Wednesday in a quiet day of reflection with their family.