Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, March 30th, 2014.


There are Known Knowns, and Known Unknowns, and Then There’s the Stuff We Know But Ignore

disasters, natural and unnatural

Numbers of dead and missing from last week’s massive mud slide in Oso, Washington, keep shifting around, and every news story has different numbers. As of today there are somewhere between 18 to 25 dead and another 30 to 90 or so unaccounted for.

Last week the county officials who control land use permits said there was no way to have predicted the disaster. Now we know that at least a couple of studies had warned that it was going to happen, precisely where and how it happened. The only thing they didn’t know was when. Somebody chose to ignore the warnings.

The most recent study was done in 2010. It was commissioned by the county to comply with federal law. The area that was buried was ranked as high risk for being buried.

Also, geologists surveyed the area back in 1999 and predicted the area would suffer a “catastrophic failure” in precisely the spot that failed.

It wasn’t that hard to predict, apparently, because the earth on the hillside shifted around a lot, especially after heavy rain. One of the geologists went back to look at the area after a large 2006 mudslide that didn’t hurt anybody.

“There was new construction,” he said. “The sound of hammering competed with the sound of [destabilized] trees snapping after the mudslide. I can’t believe that someone wanted to build their home there. It was a very bad idea.”

Charity Prueher, 41 and raised in Oso, said homeowners rarely mentioned the slides. When they did, the coursing mud was considered a small disruption, more of an annoyance than a major problem.

“They’re so content with the beautiful place where they live, they don’t think anything would happen,” Prueher said.

Prueher said she helped clear debris from the 2006 mudslide when she was a volunteer firefighter. The thought that another slide could come that was far worse never occurred to her.

Timothy Egan writes that the hillsides became dangerous because they were overlogged. He had visited the area 25 years ago and watched a massive mudslide then. He adds,

Yes, but who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions.

Just upriver from the buried community along the Stillaguamish is Darrington, a town with a proud logging tradition. The folks who live there are self-described Tarheels, transplanted from Southern Appalachia several generations ago after their own timber mills went bust. They hold a terrific bluegrass festival every year, and they show up in force at public hearings where government and environmentalists are denounced with venom. It’s not their fault that the earth moved, certainly. But they should insist that their public officials tell them the plain truth when the science is bad news.

Most of us live somewhere where there’s a potential for natural disaster. I live close enough to Long Island Sound that flooding from a big hurricane is a real concern. But that’s not likely to be a sudden disaster. I’ve told myself that if there’s ever a prediction of a big hurricane I would pack up my essential stuff and Sadie Awful Bad Cat and go somewhere else, away from water, until it’s safe to come back. There was only minor damage in this neighborhood from Sandy, though, so it would have to be a worse hurricane than Sandy to flood the place out. I don’t think I’m being entirely crazy to live here.

Still, the human capacity to ignore what you don’t want to acknowledge never ceases to amaze.

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