The Next Oso

One of the questions with the Oso disaster that people are asking now is why did we let it happen? We knew that the hill was in danger, and yet people were allowed to live below it. Emmitt tries to tackle that with a bit of a historical perspective. And as is often times the case when he does a historical overview, the early settlers to the area from New England and from the Appalachian region play a large part.

But, the ability to do anything about it stopped where it became obvious that no one wanted to listen to them. The deep sense of individualism that came west with the Appalachians in Cascadia still rules the point of view, especially along the Stillaguamish River.

Sadly, one of the former political leaders on the Appalachian end of the spectrum likely died in the Oso mudslide.

Sure, it is possible to offer enough money to make anyone want to move. But, it isn’t like Snohomish County had magic public funds growing fairy dust. And, when it came to spending that limited public money on someone that really didn’t want to move in the first place. Well, you see where the attention of Snohomish civic leaders can be distracted.

Its easy to point to the available evidence and blame well intentioned people for not doing more. But, it is worth looking back at our origins here and seeing that it isn’t simple.

I don’t know how much we can to do to prevent these sorts of things as long as we’ve decided that the government is going to enforce property rights (something I’m generally for), and it has limited funds. Maybe there isn’t a way. I mean if the state took money out of education, or whatever, to pay to move some people who chose to live in dangerous places (and there must be thousands of dangerous places across the state), or if the county took money away from fire or police protection, people would rightly scream bloody murder.

None of this is to take anything away from the rescue efforts or to say that this was what they had coming, of course. As a liberal, I think we’re all in this together; as a human, I have nothing but sympathy. And as someone who lives in the city of Seattle where the next big one is overdue, I know it’s only a matter of time before I or my neighbors need the same sort of help. And nowhere is perfectly safe. Still, the tough decisions about how we minimize the damage from future events haven’t suddenly become as clear as we might like.


  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    There’s nothing well-intentioned about Snohomish County land use officials. Their greed was palpable when they fast-tracked permits for a massive development at Point Wells that would increase the city of Shoreline’s population by 14% but is inaccessible except by a single 4-lane arterial that would have to absorb 11,000+ additional vehicle trips a day. Snohomish County will get all the county tax revenues from the development, while King County will get stuck with the bills for fire and police protection, libraries, and other civic amenities. The SnoCo officials know exactly what they’re doing. It’s all about money.

  2. 3

    SJ spews:


    I see no reason folks who want to build homes in dangerous places should be any more restricted in this right than skiers, smokers. boxers, prostitutes, or sky divers.

    The answer has two parts:

    1. Liability. The government should provide accurate data on risks to all property owners on an annual basis. This should be covered by a reasonable fee paid by the owner.

    2. Risk assessments should be publically to so insurance companies could adjust their fees.

    3. Owners should be liable for all costs arising from the risks they take, including damage to other property and costs incurred by the public.

    4. Om purchase of a property, the new buyer must sign an acknowledgement of the risks and post a bond (or show insurance) that covers potential risk!

  3. 4

    tensor spews:

    Here in Seattle, near the end of 1996, we had a perfect storm, soaking the ground with huge amounts of rainwater and snowmelt. Some houses perched on steep hillsides began to move. Some of those houses were pricey ones on Magnolia Bluff. When the sliding stopped, certain of those property owners re-filed for building permits, which the city of Seattle promptly denied. Problem solved.

  4. 5

    Sarah90 spews:

    The residents who built on that unstable land had a civil right to do so if they were given permits. However, since the government (both the state and the county)knew that land was unstable and should not be built upon, the state and the county should be liable for the damages — both financial and in human lives. FEMA should not have to commit federal funds; the public should not be asked for funds. The responsible parties should pay, and be sued if necessary.

  5. 6

    Mud Baby spews:

    At this time Snohomish County and WADNR are probably thinking their biggest mistake at Oso was failing to practice mountain top removal.

  6. 7

    Ekim spews:

    5. Sarah90 spews:

    The residents who built on that unstable land had a civil right to do so if they were given permits.

    But they also had the personal responsibility to judge the suitability and risk of building there. The information was out there. A quick look at the cliff face would have told you it was a dangerous location, no need to research public records.