As the death toll from last Saturday’s devastating landslide in Oso, Washington climbed to 16 and a heartbreaking 90 people remained unaccounted for, Northwest tribes stepped forward with donations, personnel assistance and steady prayer.
The fatalities were expected to rise, as more bodies had been found but not yet included in the total. Local, state and federal search and rescue teams, assisted by volunteers and specially trained dogs, continued to comb through a square mile of a slide-swept neighborhood on the Stillaguamish River, hoping to find survivors.
Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon, returning from a March 25 press conference at which emergency management officials updated the public on the rescue and recovery efforts 23 miles away in Oso, did the only thing left to do. He prayed—prayed that survivors would be found, prayed for healing for the families.
Others at Tulalip are praying too. They know this tragedy. The Tulalip people know the stories about the landslide at the ancestral village of WHESH-ud, at the time of the grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents, when a large portion of the southern tip of Camano Island slid into the sea, sweeping away a village and causing a tidal wave that killed family members on another island.
“That slide took away a lot of our people. We have never forgotten that,” said Sheldon, who lost a childhood friend in this latest slide.
On March 26, the Tulalip Tribes presented a check for $100,000 to the American Red Cross of Snohomish County and $50,000 to the Cascade Valley Health Foundation to assist with the relief effort in Oso. It was a gift of love, a statement that the Tulalip people understand Oso’s pain.
The Stillaguamish Tribe, too, gave $100,000 to relief efforts, as did the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, donating $5,000.
“The main message is, we’re all in this world together,” Sheldon told ICTMN. “We’ve all shared that same suffering.”
As he presented the donations, Sheldon told those in attendance, “We share our deep condolences with everyone affected by this tragedy, which is heartfelt throughout our community. We hope this donation will aid people as they grieve and work to rebuild their lives.”
The American Red Cross will use the $100,000 to assist with shelter, food and basic needs for the survivors and families. The $50,000 will go into the hospital foundation’s victims assistance fund.
“This generous gift from the Tulalips will help us serve the families of the missing victims of this catastrophic mudslide, who remain our primary focus,” said Chuck Morrison, regional executive director of the Snohomish County chapter of the American Red Cross. “We appreciate the donations from organizations and individuals across the region and the country to help meet the continuing needs.”
Then, the evening of March 26, people met in area churches and prayed. And the rescue effort continued.
'We Knew the Hillside Was Unstable'
The First Peoples of this region—Sauk-Suiattle to the east of the landslide area, and Stillaguamish and Tulalip to the west—have long viewed the earth here as a living thing. Derek Marks, manager of Timber, Fish and Wildlife for the Tulalip Tribes, said that 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, the slide area was a lakebed, the river blocked by ice. As the glacier receded, it left behind an outwash of fine-texture sand and silt common to lake beds. This is the makeup of the hill that slid March 22.
Indigenous knowledge played a part in the Tulalip Tribes’ opposition to logging above the slide area in the 1980s. Federal and Tribal reports identified that portion of hillside as a slide risk, and ancient landslides are evident elsewhere in the area.
Over the years, a bend in the Stillaguamish River slowly destabilized the toe of the hill, Marks said, and the hillside gave way in 2006. There were no injuries, but it turned out to be a harbinger of what was to come.
The Tulalip Tribes and the Stillaguamish Tribe installed a log revetment to keep the river from chewing away at the deposits that had filled in at the toe of the hill. The raw face of the hill re-vegetated itself with fast-growing alder, willow and grasses. Chinook salmon began spawning again along that stretch of the river.
“But we still knew [the hill] was unstable,” Marks said.
In Oso, the Stillaguamish River flows toward the Salish Sea from an elevation of 260 feet, Marks said. The top of the hill is at 800-feet elevation.
At 11 a.m. on March 22, eight years after the first slide, the hill again calved, sending a tsunami of sediment over the river and into the Steelhead Drive neighborhood of an estimated 180 residents, and turning an estimated 49 homes and outbuildings into a debris field of one square mile.
Snohomish County Fire Chief Travis Hots said March 25 that when the rescue operation began, he imagined an individual, perhaps, being in a car when the slide occurred, and rescue workers simply digging the vehicle out and freeing the person inside. What rescue workers found showed the sheer force and magnitude of the slide.
“We are finding vehicles that are twisted and torn up into pieces,” he said.
Tribal Governments Respond
Tulalip Tribes was one of several Tribal governments to respond and offer assistance.
“Our Tribe sent two emergency response teams to help with the mudslide catastrophe and the victims,” Colville Chairman Michael Finley wrote on Facebook. “Prayers and strength to our team in their travels and assisting those people who need help.”
Stillaguamish Chairman Shawn Yanity told ICTMN, “We have been putting resources together such as financial, staff support, [and] looking into what transportation support we can offer as well. No Tribal members were lost or injured but we know people in the Oso community … The cities of Arlington and Darrington, Snohomish County, several Washington Tribes, our communities and others too many to name have been giving overwhelming love and support. Thank you all. Pray for the loved ones and the families.”
Sauk-Suiattle Tribe Vice Chairman Kevin Lenon, who is a volunteer firefighter in nearby Darrington, has been actively involved in the search, rescue and recovery efforts since the slide occurred. Several Tribal members have been volunteering daily in various capacities.
News of efforts to raise money to assist families were posted on social media, among them: An Intertribal Jam Session and collection of necessary items for victims and families, on April 4 in Tulalip; and a day-long concert and silent auction on April 26 in Darrington.
“Your prayers and kindness are greatly appreciated as are the rescuers, the FEMA staff, National Guard, federal, state and local officials,” wrote Renee Roman Nose, health and social services director of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. “Special thanks to our local firefighters, and to our courageous community volunteers. Thank you, each of you, for your words of encouragement, phone calls, messages, support and prayers.”
Ways to Help