Washington State: Were the mudslide deaths inevitable?

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy brought devastation that was not solely from natural causes, as was reported at the time in the pages of Workers World newspaper. The infrastructure of capitalism, driven by the need to maximize profits, was the source of much of the suffering and dislocation of those storms. The same is true for the deadly mudslide that struck within Snohomish County, Wash., on March 22, burying some 50 homes under 20 to 60 feet of mud and rubble, and causing at least 27 deaths.

The rescue operation has been criticized for being disorganized, wasting precious time early on and not allowing knowledgeable people to help. But that’s only part of the story. The capitalist system allowed companies to build housing on the south side of a small river while permitting destructive logging operations for 100 years on steep slopes on the north side of that river.

Local rescuers from fire districts and local volunteers surged onto the Steelhead Drive neighborhood of Oso, Wash., right after the slide hit. They saved lives. But without explanation, they were pulled back that evening and the next day, which angered people.

Local residents who are loggers and have the skill set for working in adverse conditions were denied access to the site. They had to risk arrest to force their way into the rescue. The National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both of which have extraction and rescue teams, did not arrive until March 25.

People in the area called the hill that fell “Slide Hill” or the “Hazel Slide.” The vertical slide was 1,500 feet wide and 600 feet tall when it collapsed, and it covered a 240-acre area, which is about three-eighths of a square mile. The hill was already the site of many slides: in 1949, 1959, 1967 and a huge slide in 2006. There was no way housing should have been permitted below the hill.

Many studies have been been made by scientists which showed the instability of the hill. But after the 2006 slide, one of the scientists said he saw five houses being built on Steelhead Drive. Snohomish County officials had issued the permits. The local residents were told by public officials and the real estate industry that it would be safe.

But building permits shouldn’t have been issued. The government should have bought them out and allowed them to live in a safe place somewhere else.

In addition, Slide Hill had been logged for 100 years. A little-known logging company named Grandy Lake owns most of the hill. Grandy Lake did clear-cut logging on the hill from 2002 to 2005, a practice which causes erosion, a buildup of water and soil instability.

It’s hard not to conclude that Grandy Lake’s owners have responsibility for the destruction and death. More and more people believe they should be tried and the company’s assets seized to compensate the survivors of this massacre with new housing elsewhere.