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Gov. Inslee, Red Cross, Arlington community respond to Oso landslide
ARLINGTON — Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee joined fellow elected officials from the federal to the local levels at the Arlington Police Station on Sunday, March 23, to address the landslide in Oso on Saturday, March 22, that's since blocked both State Route 530 and the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, even as the surrounding community continues to respond in its own ways.
"We always plan for things that we hope will never happen," said Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, before he introduced not only Inslee, but also U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Susan DelBene. "This is an example of how we have planned, and why it is so wonderful that we have such a great, functioning government in not only Washington state, but also Snohomish County."
"Olympia is the state capitol of Washington, but today, Oso is the heart of the state of Washington," Inslee said. "It is a small community of only 200-plus people, but there are six and a half million Washingtonians who, at this moment, are embracing them with our arms and our prayers."
Inslee called upon his fellow Washington residents to extend aid to a community that had previously managed to remain self-sufficient in relative isolation. Although he was pleased to confirm that at least seven people had been rescued from the site to date, he was nonetheless struck by the scope of the landslide's impact while flying over the area only an hour before.
"The devastation is just unrelenting and awesome," Inslee said of the landslide, whose confirmed death toll stands at four so far. "There really is no stick standing in the path of the slide, and it is a reminder that we live in powerful forces of nature, but there is another powerful force of nature, and that is empathy, and compassion, and helping these families who are both grieving and now awaiting words of their loved ones."
Inslee twice declined to offer any predictions as to when State Route 530 might reopen, but repeatedly pledged that the currently ongoing search and rescue efforts would continue.
"All possible assets that could be beneficial, anywhere, have been brought to bear in this, both from the air and on the ground," said Inslee, who noted that those assets include both helicopters and hovercraft.
Although the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management lifted its evacuation order, Inslee asked those downstream of the landslide on the Stillaguamish River to retain "a heightened state of awareness," advice that was later echoed by Chad Buechler, an American Red Cross volunteer at Post Middle School, which housed 27 overnight occupants from the evening of March 22 through the morning of March 23.
Murray echoed Inslee's sympathies for both the victims of the landslide and their surviving loved ones, before she commended the first responders to this disaster for their efforts.
"The response to this has been incredible," Murray said. "People are putting their own lives at risk in the search and rescue efforts. Every single person in these communities — local, state, federal — has been working really hard to make sure that they could do everything they can in this incident."
Murray pledged that needed federal resources will be made available, and was joined by DelBene in praising Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert for her role in supporting those impacted by the landslide.
"She told me this morning that the donations have been incredible," Murray said of Tolbert. "She said, 'Please, if you want to help, give donations to the Red Cross directly.' Monetary donations are what they can really use at this point."
DelBene extended her thanks not only to Tolbert and the first responders, but also to Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, whose town she noted has been further isolated by the closure of State Route 530.
In the wake of Washington state declaring a State of Emergency on the evening on March 22, Inslee and other state officials have been in talks with FEMA, and have pushed for a federal declaration of the same, primarily for financial reasons.
"The good news is, we have all of the available assets we really could use right now," Inslee said. "There is really no missing piece in this rescue effort that we could use that we don't have. Every single helicopter, every single hovercraft, every single person, every communication system [...] we have a full retinue of rescue efforts underway right now. It's not dependent on the federal financial aspect of this."
Inslee nonetheless expects those federal dollars to become important down the line, especially given the anticipated expenses of reconstructing the extensively damaged State Route 530.
"Mother Nature holds the cards here, on the ability of ground personnel to enter the slide area," Inslee said, when asked about the limits imposed on search and rescue personnel by what he described as "essentially a slurry." "Some of them went in, literally got caught up to their armpits and had to be dragged out by ropes themselves, so they have taken risks already. It's just the physical impossibility of supporting the human weight in a slurry that is the problem right now."
At the same time, Inslee reassured the families and friends of the 18 people who remain unaccounted for, "Every human possibility is being explored here, to rescue and find their loved ones."
Up the hill from the Arlington Police Station, Buechler estimated that as many as a couple of hundred visitors had filtered through Post Middle School on March 22, to utilize the on-site crew of mass care personnel, mental health professionals and nurses, as Red Cross volunteers have kept in constant contact with local fire and emergency medical services personnel.
"Some of them just wanted to get information, and that's okay," Buechler said. "We want people to know that this is a place that they can go for support if they've been affected by the landslide, whether they've been displaced by it, or they need to talk to someone about it, or they just need someone to share some info."
While Buechler urged folks to stay safe, by monitoring the situation through the news on their radios or smart-phones, measures have been taken to keep people safe, including the closure of the Twin Rivers and Haller parks. Just up the road from Haller Park, the Food Pavilion at 146 E. Haller Ave. in Arlington became a collection site for food, water and hygiene supplies starting on March 23.
"I heard what was going on, so I had to do something," said Kara Brown, who's friends with Arlington Food Pavilion Store Manager Loly Ramirez.
Brown and her husband Mike were joined by Ramirez and her daughter Erica, who kicked off their donation drive at 10 a.m. on March 23, and had already filled half their trailer and collected an estimated $800 in cash by 1 p.m. that same day.
"We had cars lined up at the hospital last night, wanting to drop off donations for those in need," said Jennifer Egger, community relations coordinator for Cascade Valley Hospital, as she stopped by the Food Pavilion on March 23. "Now, we're just directing them all here."
"This has been greatly upsetting to us, not in the least because many of these people are our customers," Ramirez said. "We don't even know yet whether some of our customers might be among the missing, so we really appreciate the support and generosity that this community is showing for its own. It's amazing to see so many people pulling together in times like these."
Egger expressed a similar measure of pride in Cascade Valley Hospital's response to this situation, citing its capable handling of the six patients who came to them as the result of exhaustive emergency training by hospital staff.
"One of those patients is still in-house with us," Egger said. "It's been so sad for everyone."
The Arlington Food Pavilion will continue to collect cash and supplies throughout the week, during normal store hours, for those affected by the landslide.
Search operations by air resumed at first light on March 23, with two helicopters from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office surveying and mapping the site.
According to Shari Ireton, director of communications for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, ground rescue operations remain extremely hazardous due to the debris field, which has been described by rescuers as possessing a "quicksand-like consistency." Crews are attempting to reach the affected area from both the west side in Oso and the east side in Darrington.
Ireton declined to estimate the total number of people displaced by the landslide, but she predicted that the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management would reinstate its evacuation order during the evening of March 23.
Those who wish to help are being asked to donate to the Red Cross by texting "90999." Those with questions about reunions with family members who may be missing, as well as about evacuation or shelter information, should call 425-388-5088.
State Route 530 remains closed from the Oso Fire Department, located at 21824 SR 530, on the west side of the landslide, and from Little French Creek Road, located at milepost 42, on the east side of the landslide.