A month after the devastating mudslide near Oso, Wash., a mile of state Route 530 still sits under landslide debris.
As the people from this tiny community and the neighboring towns try to move on, they’re battling a major transportation issue with their daily commute to work. Many of them are adding hours to their drive time to go around the mudslide.
Darrington in particular has been cut off from the Interstate 5 corridor. The 50 minute route to Everett is gone.
This week, the Washington State Department of Transportation held meetings to talk to people in Darrington, Oso, and Arlington about rebuilding Highway 530.
WSDOT engineers and administrators said they are listening to the families, tribes and people from all over the community. Officials said they are taking comments and trying to answer every question. For now, they are telling people state Route 530 is probably not going to be back until the fall.
The meetings – like Wednesday night’s in Arlington – have plenty of passion.
“I just want to know why it’s going to take until fall to open this road up,” said Dave McGlothern, who has a horseshoeing business with clients – and friends – up and down state Route 530. He’s been out helping with the search since the slide came down on March 22.
McGlothern said transportation is an emergency situation and he fears Darrington's economy will dry up. He said Darrington cannot survive with the truckers having to drive around the long way.
Hampton Lumber Mills is the largest employer in Darrington. For now, the trucks full of logs are driving on state Route 20. It is a long way.
Lenora Eng is a regional administrator with WSDOT. She said removing the debris takes time.
“It is a very slow process. We’re using smaller equipment, so that every scoop is looked at because it is part of a recovery effort,” Eng said. “We don’t need to get into the gruesome parts of it, but it is something that is of value to the family members. We still have missing people.”
Gruesome: That’s about all anyone will say publicly. The terrible truth behind this is that human remains are still in the pile.
And even when the last remaining victims are identified, it doesn’t mean crews will be able to simply go in and bulldoze. More human remains will likely still be in the pile.
Removing the debris that’s left will still continue at a bucket-by-bucket pace.
Some residents like McGlothern don’t believe there are bodies on the road. He said he’s recovered bodies on other parts of the slide and he thinks officials just don’t get the urgency of rebuilding SR 530.
Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin is OK with the timeline. “The recovery: that is the thing that is the most sensitive and we make progress every day,” Rankin said. “Some days we don’t find somebody but the progress is still made. That needs to continue and nothing else really matters other than that.”
WSDOT does have some options for helping people temporarily – it’s just that it won’t help those big logging trucks. Possibly as soon as next week, an access road that used to just be used by Seattle City Light could open up to traffic, but just for locals.
WSDOT is working out a system to let cars go every half hour. A pilot car would lead the way – it’s a very rough road.
There are still obstacles in the way of that plan, like getting the go-ahead from the recovery operation and permission from some of the landowners along that road.
Meanwhile, there are other important plans, most of which have been tabled for later. Like what about a memorial along the rebuilt highway? Mayor Rankin said it’s important to immortalize the event and the people affected by it. He said there are so many great ideas.
“Some of them are as simple as they want to see their mailboxes there again,” Rankin said. “Just little things that remind us that there was a community and a neighborhood there once upon a time.”
Rankin said there’s no doubt a memorial will come. But for now, it’s not the priority. That’s a ways down the road.