For Darrington And Oso, A Long Road Back To Normal

Apr 18, 2014

The shock is wearing off in Darrington and Oso.

Nearly a month after the devastating mudslide destroyed a neighborhood and wiped out the highway between the two towns, people are trying to find a "new normal" in a place where nothing will be the same again.

Landslide is truly an understatement.

The television trucks are gone now. The new faces in Darrington are no longer reporters, they're FEMA officials come to set up shop after President Obama's federal disaster declaration.

At the grocery store, the clusters of people who gathered for comfort and information in the days after the tragedy have had to go back to work.

But going to work is a totally different business now. State Route 530, the road that made it possible to live in Darrington and work elsewhere, is gone.

Commuters are not the only ones struggling with being cut off. Randy Ashe, Darrington’s grocer, has been having problems with suppliers.

He started getting phone calls in the first week after the slide from suppliers who told him they only wanted to make the drive once a week. There have been shortages of milk and eggs. Some of his shelves are bare. He's had to let one meat supplier go.

His real concern, though, is for the summer. That's when he makes the profit he needs to get through the winter. “It’s real imperative to get that highway opened back up,” Ashe said.

"There's no normal here, really, anymore. We don't get a lot of time to spend together," said Austin Hizey, 20, after his girlfriend, Kassi Jones, 17, gave him a ride to the Darrington Library to use the free Wi-Fi.
"There's no normal here, really, anymore. We don't get a lot of time to spend together," said Austin Hizey, 20, after his girlfriend, Kassi Jones, 17, gave him a ride to the Darrington Library to use the free Wi-Fi.
Credit KUOW Photo/Daniel Berman
"Yeah, we are doing stuff the way we did before the slide, businesses are trying to adapt, but everyone is affected by this. Our main routes are cut off. It's not something you can get used to in a month." - Austin Hizey

'Down Below'

Everyone here is living with the consequences of the road closure. The drive from Darrington to Oso used to take a few minutes. It was easy for people to work in Marysville, Everett and other places "down below," as they say here. 

Since the slide, the drive for the many that work in these areas takes two hours more, each way.

And that has a cost. Part of the new normal here is lining up for donated gas cards.

The Darrington Community Center, a place normally reserved for basketball games and town get-togethers, is now a Red Cross station where people can get the cards.

“I work for Target in Marysville. So it’s 170 miles round trip,” said Diane Reece, who was waiting for a card on a recent weekday. "This is the only option we have. It’s either this, or we don’t have food on our table, or we don’t pay our utilities. So what’s your choice?”

Officials told the community this week that state Route 530 may not be open until this fall. Reece and her friend, Angel Justice, said that with all the damage, they’re not sure they believe it.

“I have my doubts," said Reece.

"Yeah, me too," said Justice.

That’s why Reece is focused on a new possibility: a gravel utility road that's been extended to create a bypass around the wreckage from the slide. But access to that road is tightly controlled.

“There are people in town who have passes to use that road," said Reece. "How that’s determined, I don’t know." She said as a local, the road should be for her, too.

A view across the mudslide debris field toward a private access road, near workers, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
A view across the mudslide debris field toward a private access road, near workers, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
Credit KUOW Photo/Daniel Berman

Bunking At Work

Wade Morgan commutes every morning from Darrington to a restaurant on the other side of the slide where he works as a sous-chef.

“I live two-and-a-half miles on the other side of the slide, and I work one mile on this side of the slide,” Morgan said. Now it’s a two-hour drive, and he knows exactly what it costs.

“So I work all day for $130, but I spend almost half of it, or more than half, for the gas to get here,” he said.

The waitresses make less than he does. The restaurant lets them bunk for days at a time, but they have children and husbands who work at the lumber mill in Darrington.

“Now they’re paying for day care, someone to watch the kids so they can come here and work," he said. "And it’s a tragedy all the way around.”

Being allowed to use the access road would relieve the pressure.

But it's not a road built for traffic. Crews have reinforced it, but it's a single-lane gravel road.

Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department escorted a few reporters along the road this week. He said the road will not be open to the public until crews have completed their search for those still missing in the expansive debris field.

"They've got measured progress," Whitcomb said. "There's confidence that we are almost there."

Dozens of drawings made by children visiting Stanwood Library were delivered earlier this month to Darrington Library, as seen Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
Dozens of drawings made by children visiting Stanwood Library were delivered earlier this month to Darrington Library, as seen Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
Credit KUOW Photo/Daniel Berman

A Little More Time To Try

The road passes a landscape of mud dotted with backhoes and work crews; orange and yellow are the only colors here besides brown.

“Landslide is truly an understatement," Whitcomb said. "It truly does have more of the appearance of a unique geological event.”

Above the site, the mountain is sheared away. Trees lie below it like fallen dominos. From there it's a mile of chewed up cars, trees and belongings, right to the edge of the access road.

People who drive this will be reminded every day.

“I think it’s hard for most people to remember just how huge a devastated area there is,” said Michelle  Lundquist. She works at the Darrington library. One of her mentors, the town librarian, was killed in the slide.

I think there's still enough people who would really like a little more time. Just a little more time.

Lundquist's husband is one of the super-commuters, driving five hours a day to a job in Woodinville. The couple have had an offer from a friend in Mount Vernon to sleep there instead.

“But with everything that’s been happening, and friends we’ve lost, he just wants to be home every night,” she said. He wants to be part of his community while it's going through this crisis.

Lundquist, like her neighbors, has a huge stake in getting any road back, but she said she can wait for the last victim to be found.

“I think there’s still enough people who would really like a little more time. Just a little more time," she said. "We’re not talking weeks and weeks. Just a little more time to try.”