Oso five years later: Remembering a community's resilience and looking forward
Oso, Washington — People in the tight-knit community of Oso, Washington, knew when they drove past Steelhead Drive. There weren’t any street signs pointing to their neighbors’ idyllic corner of the Pacific Northwest. But there was the familiar row of mailboxes.
Throughout the year, as residents cycled through birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, balloons tied to the mailboxes flitted in the air. They helped visitors navigate to the neighborhood known as Steelhead Haven — and signaled when there was an occasion worth celebrating.
Today, nearly five years after the deadliest single landslide in U.S. history claimed 43 lives, a new street sign reminds passersby of loss and resilience, both ever-present in the area where Steelhead Haven once stood.
“Just like the physical scar on the landscape, it’s a permanent feature of the culture,” said Noah Haglund, a reporter at The Daily Herald in Everett who has covered the aftermath of the landslide since it swept over the neighborhood and surrounding areas March 22, 2014. “It will be part of the history transmitted through generations.”
In the days immediately following the slide, reporters from across the country descended on Oso, Darrington and nearby cities.
They rushed to talk to witnesses, who shared harrowing tales of devastation. One of them was Sierra Sansaver of Arlington, who was 18 at the time. She was present just as baby Duke, the youngest survivor of the landslide, was pulled from the mud.
“We get around the corner and there’s a house in the middle of the road,” Sansaver told reporters at the time. “It was torn to pieces.”
Phyllis Fletcher, a current podcast editor with American Public Media, says she’s still amazed at the patience of Sansaver and fellow witnesses as they detailed the day their lives changed forever.
“It makes me think about the collective trauma that a town experiences when something major like this hits,” Fletcher said. “My goal would be to never add to that.”
Haglund and his Herald colleagues, including Rikki King, knew the commotion — which weighed on the first responders at times — would dwindle. Haglund told one official that other outlets would soon disappear. “We’re still going to be here,” he assured the man.
And they were. Haglund and King have reported dozens of stories: about victims, survivors, rescuers, industry, science, policy, lawsuits.
Five years later, survivors are still dealing with the latter.
AWARENESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Emily Harris, a partner at the Seattle-based law firm Corr Cronin, represented many of the families affected by the Oso landslide. Her firm isn’t the obvious candidate for representing victims of tragedies, she said, because it usually represents companies and government entities.
“It was unusual for them to find their way to us,” Harris said. “We met with them and were greatly moved by their stories, and their desire to find out what had happened to so many of their family members.”
At least one lawsuit is still pending. A state Court of Appeals ruling in December affirmed that Snohomish County is shielded from any lawsuits seeking damages related to the slide; it awaits review by the state Supreme Court. Two notable cases resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements: a $60 million one in 2016 and an $11.5 million one last year. Both agreements were reached with the state and a timber company that was logging the area above the collapse.
Harris also uncovered misconduct in the state Attorney General’s Office, where emails between expert witnesses were deleted during the discovery process of a lawsuit filed by survivors. Attorney General Bob Ferguson eventually issued a statement taking responsibility for failure to preserve the evidence.
“This was one very experienced attorney who made an egregious error," Ferguson said in a statement to KNKX Public Radio. "It should never have happened.” The statement also outlines immediate action taken to preserve and produce records, including hiring computer forensic experts to dig out what they could from the missing e-mails and conducting internal auditing and training, among other steps.
Harris said the actions resulted in $1.2 million in court sanctions — an amount that could have been higher if a diligent staffer hadn’t worked to reverse some of the damage, the AG's office has acknowledged.
“There were lots of opportunities for the state to get ahead of this and they didn’t,” Harris said.
Unfortunately, Harris says, the legal settlements leave an incomplete picture of what exactly happened to survivors' families and friends. Going to trial likely would have meant illustrating the full scope of manmade dangers through evidence, she said.
“There is generally not an admission of fault,” Harris said of settlements of this kind. “We do miss that piece.”
Still, the process that continues to unfold years later has raised the profile of dangers in our region.
“It created an awareness that wasn’t there before about some of the inherent natural dangers that are in our state,” Harris said.
Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, says learning from the past to inform the future is an ongoing effort for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Gov. Jay Inslee and then-Snohomish County Executive John Lovick formed a joint commission in response to the landslide. It was tasked with compiling a report that was released in Decemeber 2014. Read the report now.
Franz, who oversees the agency, says half the state has been mapped using lidar geological surveying, in an effort to identify landslide risks in other areas. That will help inform local governments that are tasked with setting land-use policies. The state also has seven geologists working on mapping and outreach, Franz said, up from just one at the time of the Oso landslide.
The state also has tightened regulations on the timber industry and tripled the number of compliance inspections for companies that obtain permits for logging. DNR also provides extensive online resources for homeowners and other stakeholders who want to buy or develop safely.
“The more we can continue to raise the profile of this issue, and make people aware of the risks and dangers and what they can do about them, is key,” Franz said.
HONORING LIVES LOST
As state and local officials work to sort out what went wrong and what can be done to better prepare for future disasters, residents in and around Oso and beyond continue to grieve and heal.
Tim Ward lost his wife of 37 years, Brandy, and four of his dogs; a fifth miraculously survived and continues to offer comfort in Ward’s new home in Florida.
“I made the conscious decision that I needed to the leave the area,” he said. “It’s hard. I know that I’ve done the right thing.”
Still, despite his hardship, Ward is filled with hope. He’s further grounded in his faith. He found love again, in the arms of a longtime friend who is now his wife. And he’s eternally connected to other survivors who have leaned on one another since that fateful day five years ago.
“Our lives are going to blossom,” Ward said, adding that the pain of loss will keep him focused and strong like “the fire that puts strength in steel.”
“I don’t cry as much as I used to,” he said. “But I don’t think it will ever go away, and I don’t want it to go away.”
Ward’s unwavering optimism is indicative of the spirit of many Oso survivors who inspire Tom Teigen, director of Snohomish County Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.
Teigen has been instrumental in the effort to develop a memorial at the site of the landslide. He considers the survivors he’s worked with on the project to be close friends and family.
“They’re so solid and they’re so resilient,” Teigen said, through tears. “It gives you a really good reason and purpose for bringing the best you can to the equation.”
Families are intimately involved in the project, providing ongoing feedback and even selling the 13 acres necessary to create the memorial. Teigen noted that only about 2 to 4 acres will be used. “We want to disturb as little of the site as we can,” he said. That includes avoiding any areas where victims were recovered, he added.
Teigen says the project is purposeful, with guidance from a network of memorial planners across the country. The approach involves developing an endowment to guarantee long-term maintenance of the site.
Discussions about how to memorialize the area started a few weeks after the slide, Teigen said. While it was challenging to transition from disaster response to “thinking beyond the here and now,” he said, it was clear early on that people needed a place to grieve, reflect and make sense of what happened.
“When you leave, you’ll leave understanding the gravity of what happened,” he said of the future memorial.
And, he says, the comprehensive rebirth of the site — with thoughtful tributes to victims, first responders and survivors — will foster hope.
Ward, sitting next to his new wife in Florida, said the effort means everything despite his distance.
“This memorial is going to be the most important thing on my heart for the next years to come,” he said.
Funding is still needed for the memorial effort. A gala is scheduled for June 22 in Seattle. It may take a couple of years before it’s dedicated. The project will be unveiled during a ceremony Friday, where locals will gather to observe a somber five-year anniversary.
In the meantime, a sculpture of those mailboxes — the ones with the balloons that everyone knew so well — will be dedicated at Friday’s remembrance.
The statue will stand in familiar fashion, pointing drivers once again to the idyllic corner of the Pacific Northwest that will never be forgotten.
STRONG TOGETHER Jeff McClelland is a Darrington firefighter who responded when the Oso landslide hit. He worked nearly two decades in fire service before that. He says nothing could have prepared him for what happened March 22, 2014. "I remember looking around and I just started crying," he said. "In 18 years, I had never cried on scene." Then, McClelland took a deep breath, centered himself, and got to work. He was busy for 18 days straight, he said, running on four or five hours of sleep a night. Five years later, he says the community bond is stronger than ever. “We went through something significant,” he said. “We’re gonna stand strong together.”