OSO, Wash. – The floodwaters that covered the dead have been drained. Whirring excavators scoop shattered timber and deep muck. Outside each cab, a sentry studies the overturned debris for any sign of the last missing victims.
When President Barack Obama arrives Tuesday, one month after a massive mudslide obliterated a rural neighborhood on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, he’ll find a haunting wasteland. The slide left a sewage-smelling swamp of gray clay and brown dirt, woven with roots and branches, and dotted here with the twisted wreckage of a red pickup truck and there with a young girl’s pink flip-flop.
He’ll also find lingering signs of perseverance and gratitude, like the yellow “Oso Strong” banner hanging in trees amid the devastation, or the marker-scrawled message to responders on the door of the Trafton General Store: “Thank you so much for saving our community.”
No details of the president’s itinerary have been released, but the White House has said he plans to survey the damage and meet with victims, first responders and recovery workers. Robin Youngblood, who was saved by helicopter after her home was destroyed, said she hopes to speak with Obama, if only to convey that laws need to change to ensure homes aren’t built in such risky areas, or that residents are warned when they are.
“People need to be given exact knowledge of whatever dangers they may be facing,” Youngblood said. “Nobody should have been living there.”
Crews have unearthed the remains of 39 people killed by the slide. They have targeted their efforts in a small area where the last four victims are believed to be buried, dividing the devastation into a grid scored by a busy hive of excavators, their orange arms and buckets bright against the gloom.
The site remains treacherous, with workers sometimes sinking up to their armpits in the mud, said Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the recovery effort.
The scoured landscape reveals the immense task that has faced the hundreds of volunteers, police, firefighters, engineers, loggers, soldiers and neighbors to retrieve bodies and personal effects, as well as the great labor that remains over the next few months.
Workers have barely started uncovering a mile-long section of state Route 530 buried up to 25 feet deep. In the meantime, the drive between the towns of Arlington and Darrington, usually 25 miles, requires an 85-mile detour. It could be fall before the highway is reopened.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed a week to build a 12-foot-wide, 2,000-foot-long berm to separate the partially dammed river from the key search area, which has been drained with pumps and pipes, facilitating the discovery of several victims.
Before that, rescue divers searched “by Braille” because the visibility was so poor, said Chris Williams, who is overseeing the recovery operation. They emerged from the water with their scuba masks smeared with mud.
As rain poured down and the river rose late last week, threatening to crest the berm, a parade of dump trucks backed along it and tipped their loads of crushed rock on top to keep the water at bay.
Amid so much earth from the collapsed hillside, there are remnants of the lives that existed in the valley below, testaments to the suddenness and power of the event: mattresses, lumber, appliances. A soccer ball, a suitcase, crushed vehicles. Insulation floats like algae amid budding alders on the river side of the berm.
One American flag hangs at half-staff from a tall cedar pole. Another drapes the very top of the cliff face where the hillside gave way, beside instruments meant to warn the searchers below of any further movement.
Youngblood and her daughter, Stephanie Murphy, who left their home just before the slide, marveled at recognizing their refrigerator in an Associated Press photo of one debris pile last week. Youngblood’s friend Jetty Dooper sat on the refrigerator while awaiting rescue, and here it was with its door torn off, its contents mud-splattered and exposed to the light.
“That’s pesto!” Murphy said. “That’s my Tupperware!”
Some 625 people continue to labor at the site each day, said Koreena Haynes, a spokeswoman for the state’s incident management team. And though the president is coming, they remain focused on the task at hand.
“The incident management team is here to finish the mission,” she said. “That mission is to recover the victims while providing safety to the searchers.”