As they drove toward Oso, part-time Ocean Park resident Tim Williams and the Department of Natural Resources employee he was riding with had a long, animated conversation. But as they crested the hill above the landslide, both men fell silent.
At that point, Williams, a retired firefighter who is trained to manage natural disaster responses, had been in the nearby town of Arlington securing and distributing supplies for the massive rescue effort for a couple of days, but it was the first time he had witnessed the catastrophe that brought him to Snohomish County.
"That's when it hit me," Williams said in an interview with the Chinook Observer last week. "You see all of these trackhoes out there. Everything's gridded off. They've got dogs out there."
Far below them, a scene of total destruction stretched out across roughly three square miles. Trained cadaver dogs and their handlers systematically paced squares in the grid, searching for any hint of a human presence beneath the mud. Wherever the dogs got a hit, Williams said, the trackhoes carefully moved chunks of mud and debris, and rescuers began pawing through the mud.
"This is very sad, because you know what they're looking for," Williams said.
He and the DNR man didn't talk much on the way back to camp.
Wildfire team member
As part of the Washington Incident Management Team, Williams usually responds to summer wildfires around the Northwest. But on April 8, he and his teammates were called to spend two weeks working at a base-camp providing support services for the recovery effort.
Last week, Williams talked about his experience and the unanticipated challenges this rural community has faced in the aftermath of the disaster.
On March 22, the deadliest landslide in American history devastated the small riverside community of Oso, burying at least 49 buildings and killing at least 41 people. During a presentation at the base camp, a geologist explained to Williams and his colleagues that a "wall of earth, mud, trees" had traveled with such force that it pushed a mass of air in front of it. In its wake, water poured in.
"In some places the mud would be 60 feet deep," Williams said.
In the first few days, rescue workers from a myriad of agencies rushed to Washington from all over the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency workers arrived in semi-trucks filled with "generators, six-wheeled buggies, you name it," Williams said, and set up a veritable tent city on the perimeter of the landslide. Washington State Troopers arrived too, and kept a 24-hour vigil on highway 530, to ensure that everyone who entered the disaster scene was there for a good reason.
The scale of the on-site recovery operation made a lasting impression.
"All of a sudden, you're just driving along, and there's all of these tents set up, all of these people with helmets and dogs," Williams said.
WIMT members like Williams are trained to implement a highly structured method of managing large-scale disasters, called the National Incident Management System (NIMS). At OSO, it was WIMT's job to ensure that this rescue effort ran smoothly.
After the chaos that followed hurricane Katrina, federal disaster managers recognized that rescue workers needed to adopt a unified approach to disaster response. They created NIMS, a paramilitary organizational system that makes it possible for workers from many different regions and organizations to work together efficiently.
Williams is a "receiving distribution manager," meaning that he manages the massive quantities of supplies needed to run a large rescue effort.
During his two-week stay at an Arlington school that had been turned into an operations center, Williams slept in the back of his truck and worked from dawn to dusk, ordering everything from yurts to instant meals to veterinary supplies, and overseeing the parade of delivery trucks that came to the base-camp each day.
Lessons for our area
In the course of his incident-management work, Williams has learned that some of the most stressful elements of a mass-casualty incident have to do with the surprising things that happen when the immediate crisis has passed.
If disaster hit Pacific County, "It'd be pretty chaotic here for two to three days," while people searched for survivors, cleared roads, and figured out how to house and feed the living and store the deceased, Williams said.
"You're just flooded, overwhelmed by the influx of goods and do-gooders."
In Snohomish County, the tragedy was compounded by disrupted infrastructure, an influx of media and visitors and strain on local resources.
For example, the local volunteer firefighters were consumed by the task of dealing with a barrage of donations that quickly filled both the firehouse and a community center "to the ceiling."
"They're pretty much the ones that had this handed to them," Williams said. "Everyone and their brother donated stuff to them."
In the first few days, good Samaritans who wanted to join the search effort poured into the area, and some refused to leave. In some cases, they were successful -- Williams related the story of a man who went to search for his ex-in-laws, and found both of them, still alive and buried under debris (one later died). But their presence increased the demand on local resources and trained rescue workers.
In his camp, paid workers and volunteers from many different organizations were unified by a shared purpose, but as the effort wore on, he observed human and animal workers alike suffering the effects of physical and emotional exhaustion. Bad weather made a harrowing task that much more difficult. Hours spent in the mud and cold meant that rescue dogs were prone to hypothermia, hypoglycemia and sprained ankles.
"That was one of my things," Williams said. He ordered high-protein dog foods, crates and medical supplies for the on-site veterinarians, who attended to the dogs in a FEMA tent.
Back at camp, workers shared the stories that filtered in from the frontlines. In an instant, the mud had buried lifetimes. A nurse who'd dreamed of owning her own home scheduled an electrician and plumber to come from out of town to help her set up house that morning. All of them were killed.
"That's the kind of stuff I'll never forget -- a guy with a family trying to do a service, a lady trying to improve her house," Williams said.
The mood in the camp was "pretty somber." Though many of the paid workers were earning serious overtime for their efforts, they never talked about how they would benefit from the experience, Williams recalled.
"No one's out high-fiving."
In more than three decades as a first responder, Williams has seen his share of tragedy. But, he said, the scale of the disaster in Oso set it apart from his other experiences.
"I'd say it was probably the worst. I've seen death, people get burned out of their houses, bad car wrecks. But there were 40 some people that were buried alive," Williams said.
After spending 14 nights in the back of his truck, he was glad he'd had the opportunity to help -- and glad to be going home. Making peace with what he witnessed there will take time, he said.
"I was ready to come home. Mother Nature caused this. I don't know what I'd think or say -- it was just overwhelming."