Monday, March 24, 2014

In which water plus dirt can be a bad thing but WE ARE ALL FINE HERE

Usually, when rain combines with dirt, the result is mud.

But sometimes, the two combine to make a genuine, large-scale disaster.

That's what happened not far from Haiku Farm on Saturday morning.

IMPORTANT SPOILER: WE ARE ALL FINE! 
The people and animals of Haiku Farm, the farm itself, 
and all of the Usual Suspects are safe and sound on high ground.

The blue post-it note is the location of the mudslide, about 10 miles by road
or about 8 miles by crow from Haiku Farm, marked
with the red dot to the left of Ebey Mountain.
This map also shows the flood plain downstream from the slide--
we are on high ground.

But not everybody was that lucky.  It's taken me a couple of days to gather data, and I still haven't wrapped my head around it, and the number of missing persons continues to grow.  Here's what happened:

Around 11am on Saturday morning, a massive mudslide let loose on the north side of the north fork of the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso.  The mud slid across the river, blocking it completely...and came to rest on top of a housing development on the south side of the river bend. There were about 50 houses, mobile homes, and live-aboard RV's in that neighborhood, about half of which were occupied full-time.
Before/after photo stolen from KOMO News.
The yellow arrows point to the Steelhead Drive neighborhood.

And they are all gone.



Stuck at home because of my surgery recovery, not because our roads are closed (they aren't), I listen to the scanner when I can stand to do it.  Sometimes it's just too heartbreaking.

The first responders asked permission on Saturday evening to go into the slide because they could hear people calling and crying...and command central denied permission because the mud is just too treacherous.  Although it is gradually dispersing, the quicksand-like mud was more than 15 feet deep on Sunday--deep enough that rescuers would immediately sink up to their armpits and need to be pulled out by ropes.

The secondary fear was that water would build up behind the mud dam and then burst out catastrophically, flash-flooding everyone downstream.  Most folks on the flood plain below Oso evacuated, which was a good idea.  Our farm is on high ground--we and our neighbors stayed safely on our own high ground.  The mud dam is now "seeping" water, and the river seems to be peacefully re-routing around the slide.  Flood danger is still present, but hydrologists are relatively confident that the dissolving dam will not turn into a second disaster.

The water gauge nearest our place shows an immediate drop when the slide
blocked water upstream, and a gradual return to normal flow today.

The confirmed death toll stands at 14 right now, but more than 150 people are listed as "possibly missing" in connection to the slide.  Survivors have lost family members, homes, pets, livestock... it's hard to know where to begin.

The cargo trailer outside our local grocery store filled up
with donations in a few hours.
Fundraising to support the rescuers and the victims is ongoing, and the emergency shelters have been inundated with donated supplies for survivors.  Union Bank in downtown Arlington has set up a disaster relief fund, if any readers are interested.  The bank address is 525 N. Olympic, Arlington WA  98223.  Donations can be made to "disaster relief fund" and all money will be used locally to help recovery.

The best news coverage I've seen of the event is HERE.  As we noted during a much smaller crisis in 2012, it takes far too long to get the Big City Media organizations to pay attention to events up here in the Land O'Banjos, and by the time the story (finally) made the news regionally and nationally, locals have already formed our own more complete communication network via social media.

But:  how did it happen?  Was there no warning?


Image stolen from "Reading the Washington Landscape" blog, an
outstanding resource for understanding stuff around here.
All of those spotted blobs around the river are past landslides.

Well, no.  The mud covered the road and houses in a matter of seconds.  There was no time to get out of the way.

But also, kinda, yes.  That area of the Sauk/Stilly is known to geology wonks as an extremely unstable, landslide-prone area.  Rather than paraphrase really good scientists, I redirect readers to the most useful blog entry on an extremely helpful local geology blog, HERE.  Dan McShane is an engineering geologist blogger, and also an insightful writer who can translate the works of gravity to ordinary non-geologists like me.

Dan McShane would never have built a house on that river bend.  If anybody had asked him, he probably would've recommended that nobody build houses on that river bend.

Photo from the governor's helicopter.
At the top/center the slide completely blocks the river.
Camera right, the flood waters are backing up behind the mud dam and
flooding the area west of the slide. 

But, who among us lives in a place that is totally safe from natural disasters?

For example, I'm completely safe from hurricanes here on the farm, and we don't worry too much about blizzards (despite my complaints about sn*w, we live here because it doesn't sn*w very often!)

However, Haiku Farm is well-within the blast zone of Glacier Peak, and when that relatively active volcano decides to roll out the fireworks, we won't even have enough time to post the photos on Facebook.

Another example: my parents live downstream from Mount Baker (another relatively active volcano), but they are more immediately threatened by tsunamis.  Now granted: the last really huge tidal wave near their house location hit the sand in the year 1700, so it's pretty easy to dismiss the threat.  However, there's a tectonic fault just offshore.  And like most faults, this one is grumpy and unpredictable.  It might not wiggle for another 2,000 years.  Or it might decide to twist and shout tonight.

People in California live with earthquake danger, people in the flyover states think tornadoes are normal weather.  No matter where we go, the earth is bigger and stronger than us.

I don't mean to minimize the devastation.  Quite the contrary.

But I want to remind people that we all live with risk.  We're all gonna die...someday.

It's all the stuff in the meantime that matters.

Make that stuff count.

And if you haven't kissed your horse/dog/cat/hamster/spouse/child/neighbor today, why don't you go do that?

Don't wait until tomorrow.

10 comments:

  1. Wow..the comment about the first responders asking and being denied is really heart-breaking. When all you want to do is help and you can't....ugh.

    So happy to hear that you all are safe through this incident. You're very right in your ending comments about natural disasters...gotta make everything count now.

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  2. Thank you for your coverage of this event, for the links, and for your reminder to kiss our loved ones today. I am so glad you and your critters are all safe. My heart goes out to those directly affected by this heartbreaking disaster.

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  3. I've been following this off and on since Saturday morning, and I just want to hear from one source that the people who were tapping/calling were rescued - even if it was just one person saved. That's the part that's ripping my heart out.

    Thank you for this information.

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  4. I heard about this on NPR and wondered if your farm was nearby! Great write up. Very sad event. Best wishes for all.

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  5. Wow. The map of previous mud slides is really devastating. I feel for the families and rescuers and anyone involved. Like you said, everywhere has something. I have horrific wildfires, while down in the valley there is awful flood conditions (living in a city protected by levees is just scary). We think we get used to the risk, until something like this happens to remind us. Great reminder, thank you..

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  6. Wow. The map of previous mud slides is really devastating. I feel for the families and rescuers and anyone involved. Like you said, everywhere has something. I have horrific wildfires, while down in the valley there is awful flood conditions (living in a city protected by levees is just scary). We think we get used to the risk, until something like this happens to remind us. Great reminder, thank you..

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  7. So sad..the thought of people crying out for help and the responders being ordered away is just heartbreaking. And yes, we all have something. I lived very near the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was quite the experience. My friends, family and animals were unharmed, but the house took a beating. Thank you for the reminder.

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  8. I live in Victoria, Australia. Every summer the city I live in is threated by bushfire, we Aussies love our summer but in the city I live in we spend the whole four months (mid November to mid March) holding our breaths and our hearts leap every time the Fireready app the CFA put out beeps on our phones (tells us where the bush fires are). Twice my horses (agisted) and home have been within 3km of a fire front that has thankfully been put out. I don't think we will be lucky next time. We survived this summer and have eight months to prepare for the next one....

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  9. It made the news here in Australia, I didn't realise you were so close (sketchy USA geography) to it but am very glad you are all okay. I hope they find more people alive.

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