| DARRINGTON, Wash., March 27
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 27 Ken Root used to
live just five minutes west of Steelhead Drive, an idyllic spot
on the North Fork Stillaguamish River in Washington state that
was washed away in a deadly landslide last Saturday.
"I got the hell out. I'm really glad I don't live there any
more," said Root, 60, who moved eight years ago and took his
insulation business 15 miles down the road to Arlington, partly
because he feared landslides and floods in the valley.
"I've lived right on the riverbank and I did have some
nightmares about my house falling into the river," he said of
his old home, which was not affected by the weekend landslide.
Root was just one of as many as 30,000 inhabitants of hilly
Snohomish County - equal to 5 percent of the total county
population - who are exposed to some kind of landslide risk,
according to a report commissioned by the county in 2010. But
unlike Root, many others have chosen to stay put despite the
Because of glacial sediment and sand, vast tracts of
Washington state are susceptible to landslides, said Daniel
Miller, a geomorphologist who wrote a study of the Oso area in
1999 and warned of potential catastrophe.
"Here in Washington, right around Seattle, there are areas
that are built on sand. The potential for very large landslides
exists in many areas of the United States," said Miller.
Far from Oso, a slow-moving landslide hit the Washington
state town of Kelso in 1998-1999, damaging 138 homes and causing
more than $30 million in damage, with no casualties.
Killer landslides have hit elsewhere in the country as well.
In 1969 slides and flooding in Virginia killed 150 people, and a
California landslide killed 10 in 2005.
Beyond the immediate area around Oso, the U.S. Geological
Survey has estimated that about 30 percent of the land area in
the lower 48 U.S. states has some exposure to impact from
landslides, though not necessarily in populated areas.
In Washington state, a map included in the 2010 Snohomish
County report shows the area around Oso as one of hundreds
highlighted in red as high-risk 'landslide hazard' zones. Nearly
all of the lightly populated valley linking the towns of
Arlington and Darrington is shaded yellow, representing
LITTLE SLICE OF PARADISE
Many residents know the risks, but are willing to trade
uncertainty for a slice of paradise, even after Saturday's slide
that has so far claimed at least 25 lives and left 90 people
The combined effects of rivers eroding the bases of soft,
unstable glacial sediment and years of rainfall mean that
attractive spots, such as hilltops or riverbeds in steep
valleys, may also be the most vulnerable.
"The mountain up there, you can't do better," said Gerald
Howard, 72, a retired sawmill plant manager living in a section
of eastern Darrington, on the cusp of the yellow and red zones.
"The water's clean, the air is clean."
Robin Youngblood, 63, who survived when her house was ripped
from its foundations and carried a quarter mile by a wall of
mud, said she was not aware of the heightened risk or that a
report documenting the hazards had been circulated to
authorities in 1999.
"Nobody told any of us," she told CNN. "Those houses on
Steelhead Drive were built after they got that geology report.
This is criminal as far as I'm concerned."
Some residents are more sanguine.
"A lot of us moved out there for the solitude," said Pete
Carlson, 56, a machinist who chose a house less than a half mile
from the slide area seven years ago and has no plans to leave.
"No matter where you move, there's something. Earthquakes,
volcanoes ... you just don't know."
Nels Rasmussen, a chiropractor who lives a few miles east of
Oso, said mudslides were a fact of life, but a big one was
always considered unlikely.
"I've had that fear ever since I've been in this area," he
said. "I tried to deliberately get a place not too close to the
river and not backed right up against the mountain."
A number of smaller slides near Oso, most recently in 2006,
and a catalog of geological reports from the 1950s make clear
the steep hill above Steelhead Drive was vulnerable to a
catastrophic collapse. But most residents did not seem overly
concerned, and were not asked to move by local authorities.
"It's just that one area that's prone to it, not the whole
valley," said one woman who works at Hesby & Daughters Mill Co,
which makes wooden garden structures a few miles east of Oso.
Local governments cannot effectively tell people where they
can and cannot live, said Tracy Drury, a geomorphologist who
wrote a report presented to the Army Corps of Engineers in 2000
warning of a potential "catastrophic failure" of the hill.
Drury, who helped construct a barrier of logs and concrete
blocks between the 'toe' of the slope and the river to prevent
further erosion after the 2006 slide, said he was surprised
development had continued.
"The fact that the 2006 slide came down really slowly may
have given them a sense of security," Drury said of the
residents. "This one didn't come slow, it came like a wall."
Snohomish County's emergency management director, John
Pennington, has said the Oso community understood the risks, yet
he also described Saturday's slide as unforeseen. Miller, who
wrote the 1999 report, said the truth may lie somewhere in the
"It depends what timeframe you are looking at. If you are a
geologist who thinks in terms of thousands of years, it is
inevitable," he said. "If you are a county planner who's
thinking in terms of less than a human lifespan, it's very
(Writing by Bill Rigby in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston
and Gunna Dickson)