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

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.

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

  1. The roots from deciduous trees grow deep and wide.
    The could have held that riverbank together, had they been left intact.

    But instead, the trees were cut. And eventually, the roots that held that earth together, rotted, and a heavy rain caused the entire cliff to go off of that cliff, and into the river.

    My heart goes out the families of the people affected.
    But this was a “known known,” as evidence is proving. And for officials to deny it, is to spit in the faces of the dead, and the survivors.

    We’re all digging our graves and putting nails in our coffins, with every tree that’s cut down, every mountaintop and valley that’s fracked, and every oil well that’s drilled.

    I’m glad I’m older, because none of this will end well.
    And my heart goes out to those who survive me.
    Some of us tried.
    But we lost.
    And now, I fear, humanity will be lost.

  2. I grew up in that area, just south about forty miles. Everyone knows it rains in Seattle but what really happens is it rains every day, and especially during the ‘winter’, none of that ground will ever dry out. It’s constantly saturated. Then put some torrential rains on top of it and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. The real scarey part is that as Seattle has expanded, the only place to go is east toward the cascade mts., especially to the northeast of the city. I bet there are fifty other neighborhoods in nearly the same situation.

  3. There is a method to the republican madness.
    Denigrate science enough and they can do ANYTHING to the environment and get away with it.
    And of course blame it on the Democrats and non christians.

  4. Actually, the roots of the main types of trees in that area, typically Douglas firs, don’t usually grow very deep in that kind of wet soil. They do grow out and hold the soil together though, pretty well. It’s not a guarantee though, as I saw in the 1982 mud slides in Santa Cruz, CA. The redwoods there are quite similar, and so is the soil and hillsides, and rainfall.

    There are two definite things that are failures on the part of the local emergency management in the Washington slide. One is the forest management beforehand, the other is that this slide was, contrary to the statements of the emergency management director, completely predictable. With the rainfall they’ve been having, and the fact that you can test water retention in the soil, you could at least warn people that they were in danger at this time if they stayed in their homes.

  5. anthrosicguy,
    Of course, they’re pine trees.

    What a yutz I can be sometimes (no further comments, please).

  6. Jared Diamond, in his book “Collapse”, cites two causes for the sudden collapse of complex civilizations; environmental degradation and elite impunity. He compared Easter Island to Japan. About the first, he wondered out loud what went through the mind of the person who felled the last tree on Easter Island; about the second, he notes with approval the Japanese Emperor’s determination to save Japan’s forests, and with it, Japan’s people.

    The ship of state needs a captain who’s aware that he goes down with it.

  7. While I applaud efforts to maintain forests etc. (and there are some horrible ecological disasters ongoing) Jared Diamond’s statements about Easter Island are based on what are now known to be inaccurate history. Because of this, I think it’s better to not rely on his specific statements using Easter Island as an example because it’s easily knocked down, and that distracts from what is a valid message about how we’re messing up our environment bigtime.

    Here’s a short article with a synopsis on what Diamond got wrong about Easter Island:

    • antrhosciguy — I’m not sure the article you linked to entirely disproves Diamond’s thesis. It seems to me the earlier Easter Island civilization did collapse, even though the population did not.

  8. It’s too bad the mudslides can’t be traced to Islamic Fundamentalism, maybe then the families of the victims could get some answers, maybe 24/7 coverage on the cables?

  9. I live in Tacoma, WA. Believe me, locally the coverage is almost 24/7. A local station even interrupted the NCAA tournament for coverage. We have also learned that there was a report in 2010 that addressed the unsafeness of that area. Apparently, a report such as the 2010 report has been put out every 10 years since 1960 saying the same thing. It seems to me that people are going to live where they want to live without regard to such warnings. Before Mount St. Helens blew, people were told to move out of the area; but, there were many who refused. It was their home, they said.

  10. Bonnie – I am curious. As an opinion, would you say the people who lived there (and the answer has to be a generality – there are a lot of people involved) were they aware of the risk – or were NOT aware of the risk???

    It’s my opinion that people have a right to live on the side of a live volcano if they KNOW it’s a live volcano – it it’s an informed decision. If local government officials or the real estate developers buried the reports, that’s something else entirely. But which was it?

  11. Doug – From the reports I have heard on the news, I have the impression that many knew it was not the safest place in the state. But, unfortunately, as human beings we always assume the worst will not happen to us. It is a tragedy; but, I am not sure how it could have been prevented short of moving everyone someplace else against their will. And, that would be un-American. I don’t know about real estate developers knowing about the reports. It was reported the reports were made public; but, how many people read and heed reports from the Corps of Engineers is probably one of the unknown unknowns.

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