"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Lessons from Oso




The tiny community of Oso, which was until a week ago a collection of houses on State Route 530 between Arlington and Darrington in Snohomish County, is a place of tragedy today.

It is not a place, as some people have pointed out, over which fingers should be pointed and accusations launched. The March 22 mudslide was not someone’s fault: It was a natural phenomenon of the kind that from time to time kills and wounds.

Any attempts to bury people in legal, economic or political battles in the weeks and months ahead probably would prove fruitless.

However, tragedies sometimes do carry lessons for the future, and the Oso mudslide did that.
Known in some quarters as the Hazel landslide, the mountain-face collapse was not altogether unheralded. Rumblings and ground movement there go back at least to 1937, and geologists over the years warned that the area was unstable. Very recently, too, there was some specific cause for worry, since the area had seen consistent heavy rain over the last seven weeks, just the type of drenching needed to loosen the soil and rock. On top of that, a small earthquake was registered about two weeks before the mudslide occurred.

This is not by way of blaming anyone for not taking action. If you’ve lived in a place for decades, as many of the Oso people had, you had reason to think that thoughts of a wall of mud crashing through your house was just paranoiac. Should officials, after, say, the earthquake, have tried to move people out of the area? It would not have been a very easy argument to make, and it might have been resisted staunchly.

Here we get to the value of lessons, because we now see what the actual results are, and compare that to what might have been done earlier. The lesson isn’t, of course, worth the cost of life or property. But it did encourage reports around the region about places prone to slides (across both Oregon and Washington) and it might result in some people taking earlier action.

If the Oso mudslide was not necessarily worth this particular candle, maybe at least some good, somewhere else, might come of it.

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