In Our View: Hard Lessons in Soft Earth

All levels of government should heed Oso mudslide warnings, implications

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Even as Snohomish County continues to dig out from under the tragic Oso mudslide, it is never too early for jurisdictions throughout the state to revisit some of their policies. All governments, from the city to the federal levels, should be examining rules and regulations for areas that could be environmentally unstable, learning from the lessons Oso offers.

Those lessons are vast. The tragic March 22 mudslide about 55 miles northeast of Seattle resulted in more than 20 deaths, with several dozen people still unaccounted for. And while Mother Nature often is unpredictable and uncontrollable, several facts about the Oso mudslide should make officials everywhere take note as they plan for every possible eventuality.

For example, according to The Seattle Times, state regulators failed to incorporate the latest research when they approved clear-cut logging on a plateau above the slope that gave way. In 1997, a report commissioned by the state Department of Ecology drew boundaries for where groundwater could feed into the slope and increase the risk of landslides below. But in issuing logging restrictions later that year, the Department of Natural Resources used boundaries that had been drawn up a decade prior. The result, years later, was clear-cutting above the hill that eventually gave way.

In addition, there are indications that officials — and residents — ignored warning signs about the danger presented by the hillside. It is human nature to figure that if a giant hill is there, it likely has been there since long before people inhabited the area. But the hill that collapsed in Snohomish County had experienced mudslides in 1949, 1951, 1967, and 1988, demonstrating its instability. As The Seattle Times reported, “Geologists studying the slope have cited multiple factors that could have contributed to the slides, from excessive precipitation to erosion of the hill’s base by the Stillaguamish River to logging.”

Finally, as The Associated Press reported, no national system exists to track landslide hazards. “No one has pushed it, and it hasn’t been a priority,” Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University, told the AP. “It’s costly to monitor it, and we don’t want to pay for it.” Lynn Highland, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, said: “It’s expensive, and everybody seems to be satisfied with dealing with landslides when they come, except when we get a big one like this.” More than a decade ago, however, Congress directed the USGS to devise a national strategy to reduce landslide losses.

The need for such a plan is becoming impossible to ignore. On top of the horrific loss of life in Oso, the monetary cost will be staggering. On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee asked President Obama to declare the area a major disaster, asking that four federal programs be made available to local residents: disaster housing; disaster grants; unemployment benefits; and crisis counseling. That will be on top of rescue and recovery expenses, the future costs of rebuilding, and the devastation to the economy in Snohomish County.

As many people seek to move away from developed cities and suburbs, and many others seek to build upon previously unoccupied hills, the threat of landslides will continue to demand attention. Such slides cause 25 to 50 deaths a year and up to $2 billion in damages annually. Mapping, monitoring, and preparing for landslides can be expensive, but not as expensive as the aftermath of such slides. In the meantime, governments should look at Oso as a warning.