The High Price of Capitalist Calculation:
Washington State Mudslide Kills 30

April 7, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


"Robin Youngblood was sitting in the living room with her friend, Jetty Dooper, when they heard a crack. 'All of a sudden there was a wall of mud' about 25 feet high, she said. 'Then it hit and we were rolling. The house was in sticks. We were buried under things, and we dug ourselves out.'"

"'In three seconds, everything got washed away,' said Paulo de Oliveira of Lynnwood, who was driving on Highway 530. 'Darkness covering the whole roadway and one house right in the middle of the street.'"

(Seattle Times, March 22. Other quotes in this piece are from the Seattle Times unless otherwise indicated.)

It was late Saturday morning on March 22 in the town of Oso, Washington, in a small community on the south side of the Stillaguamish River, a beautiful spot where young families had bought homes with bright dreams of their lives before them, and where people in their 50s and 60s who had worked hard their whole lives, sought to carve out a peaceful retirement in a place of natural beauty. It was mostly low-income people who were drawn to relatively affordable prices—the average home cost $164,000. (The 2010 national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $272,900.)

March 2014: site of the horrific mudslide near Oso, Washington killing at least 30 people, as the search continues for other victims. Photo: AP

Then, without warning, the side of the hill on the north side of the river gave way, sending tons of mud across the river, across a state highway, and destroying 49 homes on the other side. The debris field from the slide is one square mile and as high as 80 feet in places. The slide moved at estimated speeds of up to 100 mph. People sitting literally side by side one moment, were in the next swept apart and away from each other by mountains of mud and debris. Cars, houses and everything in the path of the slide were crushed and pulverized. A survivor said the first sound was of "trees snapping and cracking ... like Godzilla going through the woods." And then of voices crying out for help, and a baby crying.

Neighbors rushed to the area to rescue who they could amidst mud 20 feet deep and capable of pulling people under like quicksand. An infant was saved, and his mother and some others. Fire departments, police, and volunteers poured in from the surrounding areas.

But there were relatively few rescues, and by the next day there were no more voices to be heard from the giant mud field. One rescuer found his own front door, but his home, his wife, and his child were gone. At least 30 people were dead, 13 are still missing. A community has been destroyed, dreams and lives shattered like the trees that were crushed by the descending slide.

Since the slide, loggers, firefighters, and others from the local area and beyond have engaged in a heroic effort under very difficult and unsafe conditions to first save and now recover people buried under the mud. There is deep sadness about neighbors, friends, and family lost. People have come together in this area and beyond to console and help out in a heartbreaking situation.

A Disaster Foretold...

"This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere."So spoke John Pennington, the director, since 2006, of the Snohomish County Emergency Department. Every word of this is a bald-faced lie.

There had been frequent slides on this hillside over the past 60 years, including a massive one in 1967, and a partial collapse in 2006. In fact, slides had been so regular on this hill over at least the last 65 years that it even had a nickname, "the Hazel landslide." Because of this history, there were numerous geological reports on future slide potential, which repeatedly and consistently said the potential for a major slide was great.

In 1999, a report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Daniel J. Miller a geomorphologist (a field that studies how land is shaped and predicts how it will change) and Lynn Rogers Miller warned of "the potential for a large catastrophic failure." After the March 22 slide, Daniel Miller said that "We've known it would happen at some point, we just didn't know when... Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river."

This was not an isolated case, but one of many. As recently as 2010, Snohomish County commissioned a report to determine how many homes in the county were in danger from landslides. According to the Seattle Times, in that report "the hillside along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, outside the small community of Oso, was one of those highlighted as most dangerous." The report was completed by Tetra Tech, a California-based engineering and architecture firm. Rob Flaner, a Tetra Tech program manager and one of the report's primary authors, said bluntly, "For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity."

In fact, the danger was so well known to the authorities that in 2004, Snohomish County discussed a plan to buy out the homes in the slide danger zone. Officials wrote at the time that the costs "would be significant, but would remove the risk to human life and structures." But they did not carry out any buy-out plan. In fact, six homes were permitted and built in the danger zone after this. Eight people in those homes, including four children, are dead, or missing and presumed dead.

Were the Residents Warned?

Apparently undeterred by the fact that he had already claimed that no one, and certainly no government officials, knew about the danger of slides, John Pennington then turned right around and said that the government did know, and warned people, but that the problem was the residents. According to Pennington, the people knew, they were warned, but they refused to take the warning seriously:

"This entire year we have pushed message after message that there's a high risk of landslides. The dangers and risks are known."

"We've done everything we could to protect them..." (USA Today, March 26 & 27)

Here it is important to note a bit of trickery: Of course people "knew" that there was a danger of landslides—the history of bigger slides, and numerous small slides that occurred over the years, were a topic of discussion and concern among residents. But what they did not know, and what could not be known, was the danger of catastrophic slides. Residents lived across the river from the hillside, and no past slides had come close to reaching that area. Nor had there been any deaths from landslides in the area in the past. So "common knowledge" gave people a false sense of security that only science could dispel. Pennington's comments play on the difference between what people thought they knew, on the surface of things, and what was actually known, on a scientific basis, about the dangers.

It is the warning of "catastrophic" slides that was so important in the various geological reports submitted to the authorities (none of which, apparently, were disputed by other scientists) and that is what was kept hidden from the residents—in fact, people were repeatedly told that the area was safe, and that the government was doing engineering work to make it safer.

Surviving long-time residents are furious about this, and emphatic that they were not told about it. "If I'd known it was dangerous, I would have moved in a heartbeat," said Dale Dunshee, who sold his property before the slide. Davis Hargrave, a retired architect who lost dozens of neighbors in the slide said that, "We are not a bunch of stupid people ignoring warnings.... We all make risk assessments every day of our lives. But you cannot make a risk assessment on information you do not have."

The Role of Logging

Even though there was scientific information about the potential danger, which the authorities knew about, there was no effort, and in a more basic sense, no mechanism to do anything about it. In fact, the actions taken by officials led to things that may have made the situation worse by authorizing clear-cutting of timber on the plateau above the area.

The role of logging in causing or accelerating landslides is not simple. Landslides happen in nature—they do not necessarily need human interference. It is possible that the Oso slide would have happened no matter what, and it is not definitively established so far that the logging made the landslide potential worse in this case.

But a major thing that precipitates landslides on slopes is when the soil becomes too laden with water; the soil becomes both heavier and looser and can then slide off the rock bed underneath it. When there are trees at the top of the hill, they absorb water, preventing it from running off into the soil. Instead, more of the water is dissipated into the trees' leaf systems, from which it can evaporate. Once full-grown trees are cut, it takes decades for them to grow back, even if timber companies replant, which they do not always do.

Lee Benda, a University of Washington geologist, reported that harvesting of timber can increase soil water "on the order of 20 to 35 percent," and he observed that all past Oso landslides had occurred within five to 10 years of timber harvests on the plateau above.

So when Summit Timber applied to harvest trees in 1988, Paul Kennard, a geomorphologist for the Tulalip Tribes that live in the area, warned regulators that harvesting holds "the potential for a massive and catastrophic failure of the entire hillside." A stop-work order was issued, and a Summit Timber representative wrote the Department of Natural Resources complaining that $750,000 to $1 million worth of timber was at stake, and implying that the real concern was not landslides but rather some nefarious environmentalist agenda.

Ultimately Summit Timber scaled back their logging in the area, expressing their own concerns about the risks to the slope, but in 2004, property owner Grandy Lake applied for a permit to clear a 15-acre tract near the plateau's edge, which was approved with some restrictions. Two years later there was a partial slide. By 2011 they had cleared 20 percent of the trees on the plateau. Now, the 2014 slide has taken the rest of the hillside, right up to the triangle of land clear-cut by Grandy Lake. It is generally acknowledged that unusually heavy rains this year helped create the conditions for the slide, but a mature forest at the top would have significantly lessened the impact of these rains.

Logging is not—as it is sometimes portrayed in the media—a bunch of rugged men carving out a living on their own in the wilderness. Logging is a big industry in the Northwest U.S., and is bound up with the ruling capitalist class as a whole. Many logging companies are part of larger multinationals, or are owned by holding companies or investment banks on Wall Street or other financial centers. They are very powerful politically in the area. Paul Kennard noted that the state rarely objected to proposed timber harvests, and residents of the area point to vast swaths of clear-cutting which leads to countless environmental problems beyond the Oso landslide.

Fighting the timber companies, according to Kennard, is like "David and Goliath, but you don't have the slingshot."

What Kind of a System Is This?

There is a lot of very justified outrage among people in the Northwest about the shocking disregard for lives and well-being of the people, the way in which these were disregarded in favor of timber interests, real estate interests, or even petty political calculation. However, much of this outrage does not go deep enough to the workings of the system, and remains on the level of anger at the personal greed, corruption, dishonesty and cowardice of various officials and companies.

Yes, what top-level people who were more "in the know" did was unforgivable. But the more fundamental question to ask is: What kind of system is it where, in reality, the interests of the people are not the starting point, and the environment is treated as only something to be used and despoiled for profit? This is a system where there is no interest in and no essential mechanism for warning people of dangers like this landslide, for connecting them with the science they need to be forewarned, and for protecting their lives and well-being. A system whose very nature and dynamics crush people's lives in many different ways. This is a system in which a small owning-class of capitalist-imperialists controls the economic lifelines and resources of society. It is a system where profit rules. It is a system where state power is used to preserve and extend global exploitation and misery, and to suppress resistance.

That is capitalism, and it is that system and its ordinary workings, more even than the mud, trees, and river waters, that came crashing down on the people in Oso on March 22, 2014.

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