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One year since Oso tragedy, long road still remains ahead

 

Christopher Andersson

Arlington resident Tiffany Welzien and 11-month-old Gavyn Welzien sit at the Oso memorial bench installed last year thanks to Cabela's and other local organizations.

As the Stillaguamish Valley community prepares for the one-year anniversary of the March 22 Oso landslide that took 43 lives, many seek to remind the community that the healing process is not yet complete.

After the landslide Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert talked to other communities that went through disaster and the consensus was that true healing can take two years or it can take 10 years, or anything between.

The recovery process has made headway, said Tolbert, but she doesn't want the community to forget the families that still need help.

The First Year

Immediately after the slide the Stillaguamish Valley came together to meet many needs, said Tolbert.

Arlington's Starbucks drove out coffee everyday to the site for those searching through the mud, she said.

For supplies, Arlington Hardware provided rescue workers and others in Oso with hardware, particularly gloves and boots.

Some of the heavy machinery brought in for the heavy-duty work was loaned from Smokey Point Concrete.

For victims recovering, local aerospace manufacturer AMT collected donations of anything to help victims and rescue workers and delivered them to the site. They were inspired by one of their workers who had a personal connection to Oso, said Tolbert.

Two Arlington laundromats gave free washing services to any rescue workers or volunteers whose clothes got dirty in the mud of the landslide. They would extend the same service to Oso families who recovered any of their clothing.

Those and many other immediate needs were helped from the community jumping to the cause, but many of the long-term needs are harder to solve.

"We're not where we want to be, where the community really gets healed and gets past it, but there's a lot of work being done on a lot of different areas," said Tolbert about the recovery.

The Long-Term Recovery Group, made up of members from numerous Arlington and Darrington organizations, meets once a month to discuss the unmet needs for Oso families.

"We're trying to find those things that the immediate help didn't help with. Because we know that rebuilding your life is a big and daunting task," said Tolbert.

The loss of family members homes has been tough for many who abruptly had to respond to massive change.

"They're mourning the loss of their property or their loved ones, but they're still in school or work having to move forward," said Tolbert.

"They have to put their lives back together emotionally, but their lives will never go back to the way things were and they have to process those emotions," said Tim Sauer, a member of the Long-Term Recovery Group and a pastor at Immaculate Conception Church.

The material complications of loans, housing, mortgages and property alone are a tremendous obstacle for people, said Sauer.

"We helped with everything from loan payments to one person who needed to replace a pair of eyeglasses, something simple and small like that to big things," said Jim Jacobson, a member of the Long-Term Recovery Group and a pastor at Calvary Arlington.

Jacobson said that every family's needs have been unique, but with the help of disaster case managers, many family's needs are getting communicated.

"We have helped and are continuing to assist all the needs being presented. It's been challenging for [disaster case managers] to connect and communicate sometimes though," he said.

He said that some people are just now reaching out for assistance and that the recovery group is respecting the pace at which all families want to come for help.

Sauer said that as more material and physical needs become resolved for families, emotional needs will begin to surface more. He said the recovery group has planned long-term initiatives to help with those needs.

Tolbert said she hopes the Stilly Valley continues to listen to these needs.

"The whole community accomplishes things. It was just a matter of keeping on listening. I think the biggest thing [this past year] is that the community stayed together to support the families and the rebuilding," she said.

Support of Charities

The local community and people around the country helped Oso families with a wealth of direct monetary donations as well.

About $9.5 million was raised between the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation, the United Way of Snohomish County and the Red Cross, according to Neil Parekh who is with the United Way of Snohomish County.

"It's really humbling to be in a position to help so many people who were affected so deeply by this event," he said.

The local Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation volunteered to be a donation point after recognizing the need for a local organization.

"There were lots of people looking for somewhere to donate that had low overhead, and were local and we figured we could do that for the community," said hospital representative for the foundation Heather Logan.

The foundation quickly raised more than $2 million, which was a "very different experience" for the volunteers there, said Logan. The organization primarily raises funds for the Cascade Valley Hospital and has raised about $1 million for the hospital over the last 20 years, she said.

Logan said that they partnered with the United Way and that advice on handling those funds "was just a phone call away."

The foundation and the United Way of Snohomish County spent the majority of their funds to directly help victims of the landslide.

North Counties' Family Services and Arlington Family Resource Project received most of the funds.

Housing programs run through those services helped any family that lost their home with $30,000 per family over the next two years.

Specifics like medical needs, immediate housing needs and transportation needs were supported with about $930,000 provided to families.

In the aftermath of the event $452,000 was provided soon after as emergency cash.

"Right after the landslide we were giving people checks to figure out how to get by when they were in those early stages," said Parekh.

One of the disaster case managers was also funded by the United Way. "They work with families to put together long-term plans. Their job is understanding what those long-term needs are and really the crux of our whole support system," Parekh said.

Local organizations received some of those funds as well.

The Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation spent about $442,000 toward first responder organizations, mainly local fire districts. The funds helped those organizations replace emergency equipment that was lost in the mud during the day of the slide.

"So if there's another emergency those organizations won't be caught empty handed without that equipment," said Logan.

They also gave $252,000 to local community organizations to help with indirect needs, said Logan.

Among those funded organizations were Campfire USA of Snohomish County who provided relief camps, Darrington schools who received a grief counselor and Worksource Snohomish who helped Oso teenagers find jobs.

The United Way helped supported studies to build the economy, but also helped directly by working with the state's Department of Commerce to keep the Hampton Lumber Mill in Darrington open.

"If you recall when SR 530 was closed, many of those driving routes increased dramatically and the mill had to cover those costs so we helped with that," said Parekh. The mill supported around 10 percent of Darrington jobs so it was important to keep open, he said.

Parekh said that the United Way still has a supply of funds, more than $600,000, that they hope will support families this next year.

"Our commitment was to be here for the long term," said Parekh. "Everyone's on their own journey and they move at their own pace," he said.

Logan said the foundation's funds to families that lost a home are still available and will remain available.

The Next Year

"As people replace the material things in their lives, different homes and different furnishing, they will begin to get used to them and remember more of the things that can't be replaced. The ones we loved and lost will leave a scar and we never forget about those people we lost, but we hope the pain will lessen," said Sauer.

Sauer said the emotional needs of the community will require the most help this next year.

"They need to be able to feel joy again, while still never forgetting the pain and loss that this sudden and tragic event brought," he said.

The Long-Term Recovery Group plans to move forward with mental health services and counseling they hope will continue to heal the community, he said.

Sauer also hopes to broaden the brush so that all affected community members receive help.

"The first responders there saw and experienced things that we would never want to see and they need emotional assistance as well," he said.

Those mental health services will be increasing as we reach events that bring back those memories like the upcoming anniversary, said Jacobson.

"As we approach the one-year anniversary, it will be hard for many who went through it," he said.

Tolbert agreed these big events will be hard for the Oso families that lost people or property that day.

"They're trigger events for a deep well of emotions that people feel. I kind of look on this [anniversary] with mixed feelings, knowing that it will cause many people reflections of pain," she said.

As we reach the first-year mark Tolbert hopes that people will remember there are still potentially years of recovery ahead.

"I think it's about keeping the resources around the people who need the help still. And feeling the same level of caring and compassion for these families. Sometimes with distance, by which I mean time, from an event we can turn our attentions elsewhere," she said.

It's the natural progression of big events like this that some support drops off, she said, but she hopes that those families aren't forgotten.

"Some of the thoughts that I had in the middle of [March 22], when it was so overwhelming, when every person was engaged, collecting supplies, donating money, driving coffee to first responders, doing something everywhere. It occurred to me how do you keep that pendulum in the community from swinging back and keep that amount of compassion," she said.

Tolbert said she doesn't have a "magic answer" for that.

Future Initiatives

Although the emotional needs will be a major focus for next year, there are still physical things Oso families need.

By this spring Tolbert hopes that Snohomish County will have bought out the properties in the Steelhead Haven community that were destroyed by the slide.

The process is currently moving through the county government, she said.

"I think those kinds of things need to be moved out of the way so people can move forward in some cases," she said.

The ultimate fate of the land has not been discussed at length yet.

"Once the buyout happens, then people will be able to turn their attention to what happens to the area. What's the appropriate thing to happen? That discussion's a little raw yet, because all the parts aren't in place to have it openly," said Tolbert.

An Arlington Family Resource Center will open in June, according to Crisann Brooks, director of family support at Lutheran Community Services.

"[The Oso slide] was really the catalyst that sort of tipped it over. It was like 'wow, we really do some center around Arlington,'" she said

The center was in the works before the March 22 landslide, however the landslide made the need more obvious, she said.

"It was needed before this, we have a big wide path of population between Everett and Stanwood that don't have the resources needed," said Tolbert.

The center will help not just Oso victims, but all families, and plans to provide parenting classes, recreation, job education, legal advice, cooking/nutrition help and support groups, said Brooks.

"It's about making sure people don't feel alone or isolated," said Brooks.

File Photo

Shortly after the Oso landslide, volunteers including Tascha Branch, center, help unload a truck from Arlington Hardware filled with donations for victims.

Tolbert said the landslide commission that studied the response provided some key recommendations that will help the state be prepared for future emergencies and she is glad those appear to be moving through the state legislature.

"And that's about future prevention and future resources if this ever happens again, and it's good to know through all of this that happened that we're paying attention to make things better in the future," she said.

Out of all the aftermath to come out of the March 22 slide, Tolbert was particularly happy about her own community.

"It was a big event that we all went through and it was a very emotional time, but when you get to sit back and reflect on it I really couldn't be prouder of the people of the Stilly Valley. Their compassion was so great it's almost like it rippled across the U.S. and the world," she said.

 

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