How Military Surplus Worked In Oso’s Favor

Aug 25, 2014

Pilot Bill Quistorf of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office
Pilot Bill Quistorf of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office
Credit KUOW/John Ryan photo

You might not think there's much of a connection between the deadly Oso landslide and this month's racially charged unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

But Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, said the Oso rescue efforts benefited greatly from military equipment and funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  

Forty-three people died when an entire hillside collapsed along the North Fork Stillaguamish River in March.

The increasing militarization of local police is coming under scrutiny nationwide in the wake of a local police department’s military-style response to protests and riots in the suburb of St. Louis.

He said that was especially true on the chaotic first day, when up to eight helicopters buzzed were deployed.

“We could not have effected this rescue in the short time without the equipment we received, the surplus helicopters, and the Department of Homeland Security grant money we received,” Quistorf said. He said Snohomish County has two military surplus helicopters.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to give $1.6 billion in grants to local police departments this year, much of it for military-style counter-terrorism equipment.

Meantime, a special commission investigating the slide began its work Friday with a tour of the site in Oso.

The commission, established by Governor Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, is tasked with making recommendations to improve planning and response to future landslides in the state.

Five months after the slide, work crews are still using screens to sift through debris in search of anything of value to victims or their survivors.

Commission member David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist who has been involved in scientific studies of the site, said he was “pretty astounded” by the magnitude of cleanup this summer.

“It’s very different from when I was there Memorial Day weekend,” Montgomery said. “I imagine people who were there as part of the initial response wouldn’t even recognize it.”

State transportation officials expect work to finish rebuilding the stretch of state Route 530 buried by the slide in October.

Commission chair Kathy Lombardo said that shortly after she was named to head the commission last month, she drove by the slide to see for herself.

“The moment I came upon the slide, I don't know what happened, but I had chills, intense, intense chills,” she said. “I drove through in silence and just filled up with tears.”

Lombardo said her goal is to have the commission make tangible recommendations that can be taken relatively quickly.

“So that we are much safer in state of Washington the next time that one of these happens,” she said.

The commission’s mandate does not include holding anyone accountable for actions that may have worsened the impact of the natural disaster.

"We will not be finding fault,” Lombardo said.

The commission's report is due in December.

They also heard detailed accounts of how first responders and others reacted in the hours, days and weeks following Washington's worst landslide.