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People hold candles during a vigil at the Darrington Community Center on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The vigil was held on the two week anniversary of the Oso mudslide and brought together hundreds of local residents affected by the disaster.

Joshua Trujillo, Associated Press - Ap

Oso mudslide survivors ponder rebuilding – and its risks

  • Article by: Kirk Johnson
  • New York Times
  • April 19, 2014 - 6:21 PM

– A sometimes awkward, invariably agonized conversation about the future has begun here at the site of March’s devastating landslide about what might be rebuilt and what was perhaps forever lost that day.

It is a delicate chemistry, responders and residents say, with the needs of the families grieving or looking for their loved ones — 39 people were killed by the slide, with four others still missing — balanced against the needs of the many other families and businesses struggling with the slide’s aftereffects on the local economy, the transportation system and the environment.

“We’re doing what a family would do: We’re listening to each other,” said Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee.

The aftereffects are deep.

A 1-mile section of state highway crucial to life in this corner of the North Cascades lies shattered and buried. State engineers said in community meetings that they hoped to open a primitive one-lane detour within weeks, but that restoring even partial traffic on the old Route 530, portions of it under 20 feet of mud, was months away at the earliest.

The Stillaguamish River and the streams that fed it in the Oso Valley have shifted into new patterns of flood risk and water quality. Some wells have turned turbid with silt, while others are now bubbling like artesian springs, as the millions of tons of moving earth changed subterranean pressures.

Perhaps most profound for many people is a new awareness of the dangers of life here, amid crumbly and steep glacial slopes, that is changing the psychology. The Cascades are uniquely prone to slides, as rivers like the Stillaguamish cut through the hundreds of feet of rubble left on the mountaintops when the glaciers retreated. The landslide on March 22 also came after weeks of near-record rain.

“I don’t think it ever felt safe,” said Erika Morris, a resident of Darrington, on the east side of the slide from Oso.

Robin Youngblood lost her home in the disaster and says that in a recurring dream she still sees the wall of mud roaring toward her. She said she did not think any residents of Oso, which had a population of about 180 before the landslide, would ever go back and try to rebuild homes or their lives in the area.

She has imagined instead a memorial and park there, with perhaps a carved totem pole made from the 100-foot-tall spruce tree near her house that withstood the slide.

“The other half of the mountain is still unstable,” Youngblood said. “I’m certainly not going to take the risk of going through that again.”

“There are no simple solutions,” said Dan Rankin, Darrington’s mayor. Rankin, a sawmill owner, said he worried every day that what was lost that Saturday morning in Oso was only the beginning.

“How do we pick up the pieces?” he asked.

© 2014 Star Tribune