Friday, April 4, 2014

Oso, Washington Landslide: Too Bad There Was No Advance Warning. Oh, Wait--There Was.

When Mother Nature pitched a fit in 2004 and sent a massive tsunami thundering across the Indian Ocean, creating 100-foot waves that killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries, humanity  hung its head in sorrow and lamented the lack of an early-warning system that could have given victims the time to reach higher ground.  Since that tragic event, multiple nations have worked together to create a tsunami warning system similar to those that exist in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Ten years later, a new catastrophe has struck, this time in Oso, a small community on the banks of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County, Washington State.  So far 60 people are known to have been killed by a mile-wide wall of mud, rocks, and trees that slumped off the hillside dubbed "The Hazel Landslide" by geologists.

I don't know about you, but if I was looking to buy a piece of property on which to build a house, the last place I would look is anywhere near anyplace with the word "landslide" in its name.  Given the human penchant for self-preservation, it's a pretty sure bet that the Oso victims would feel the same.

So, the question is, did the victims know they were building their houses in a danger zone?  And if not, why not?

I fear the answer to why the victims would not have known of the danger boils down to money.  As in taxes the local community and county would have collected from the homeowners.  The money the contractors would have made by building the homes.  The income the real estate agents would have earned by selling lots.  The millions the developer would have received for developing the raw acreage into a subdivision.  And, of course, we cannot forget the loggers whose livelihoods depended on cutting down the trees located on top of the Hazel Landslide.

Geologist Dan Miller, like the rock hounds and engineers who came before him, was well aware of the danger posed by Hazel.  In a 1999 report prepared for the Army Corps of Engineers, Miller detailed Hazel's history of  landslides dating back to 1949.  Between 1949 and 2006, major hillside avalanches slumped off the mountain five different times: in 1949, 1951, 1967, 1988, and 2006.  Interspersed among these major events were more frequent, though less devastating, slips.  Miller prepared other reports detailing Hazel's instability for the federal government, the State Department of Ecology, and a timber company.

Miller's warnings were preceded in the 1950's and 1960's by other engineers' reports detailing the danger posed by the sandy soil that underlay Hazel's surface, and the river erosion that undercut her base.  Plans in the 1950's to reroute the river were scrapped in the 1960's, because the lands of the new route were already divided into lots for summer cabins.

Despite all these warnings, county officials continued to issue building permits for homes in Hazel's danger zone.  Indeed, when Miller returned to the area after the 2006 landslide, he couldn't believe the county was still allowing houses to be built right across the river from the slide.

To say that the various governmental entities with knowledge of Hazel's penchant for thundering off the mountain failed the Oso victims, would be an understatement--and a clear indication that those entities have forgotten what the Founding Fathers of this country knew so well: that the purpose of government is not to act as a chamber of commerce, but to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...."

I'd say the officials in Washington State failed the Oso victims on all counts.

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