Sunday marks one year since the Oso landslide. Highway 530 will shut down in the morning as people gather to commemorate the day.
Many people in Oso are bracing themselves for an onslaught of emotions and onlookers. The slide on March 22, 2014, killed 43 people, obliterated the Steelhead Haven neighborhood and closed State Route 530 for half a year.
At the site of the slide are small cedars, one for each person who died. People walk among the trees as the wind whistles across the valley. Buses of tourists occasionally come by, as they have been since the slide hit.
Mel Lima of Everett said he viewed the slide as a geological event; he said the trees were a reminder of the lives lost. “It’s more somber,” he said. “There’s more emotion attached to this place."
A few miles west, the Oso Community Chapel was a key gathering point for those affected by the slide. Now it’s quiet, except for a woman playing with a lively group of toddlers and dogs. They disappear inside the moment strangers approach.
Across the street, Bruce Blacker works at his sawmill. He understands the woman’s reaction.
“You’re in the spotlight for so long and it’s not really helping,” he said in an interview,” Blacker said. “And we’re still dealing with trying to get the victims some closure on everything whether it’s houses or rent.
“There’s a lot of things not right still.”
Blacker repeated a statement often heard in Oso, that the direct victims of the slide did not receive enough help. He cited reports that millions in donated funds were still not disbursed, while many of the people who lost homes and loved ones still had need.
“They didn’t get enough help to amount to anything,” he said. “It was embarrassing.”
Charities took in $9.5 million for the Oso slide. Of that, about $2.5 million remains undisbursed.
The United Way of Snohomish County said it and organizations partnering on Oso disbursed a total of $1.4 million to 77 households directly affected by the slide, based on their individual needs. Another $1.4 million remains undistributed.
The Red Cross says it still holds $1.1 million for Oso. The aid organization said it did not distinguish between direct and indirect victims of a disaster and could not say how much it distributed to individuals made homeless by the slide.
Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper said it had proved to be a complicated matter to distribute help to victims.
“It’s amazing how hard it is to give money out,” Harper said at the fire station last week. “In the first 10 days you could just write a check. Now we have to go through a process.
“I don’t want to blame the IRS, because they have their rules for a reason, but there are just so many restrictions. And if you do it wrong, you can cause more trouble to these people.”
There are signs that life is moving on in Oso. The general store has reopened after three years, and gas service was being established on a recent visit.
People were already drinking coffee and talking with each other on couches inside the General Store. There was talk about a farmer’s market, and perhaps beer on tap. But faces inside the store were wary: There had already been a bad experience with news media coming into the store to shoot video.
“Right now, anxiety levels are at the max,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of people on edge with the anniversary coming up.”
He said memories are stirred up when an important date comes around. The triggers that bring a person back can be surprising.
“You go right back there,” Harper said. “For me the other morning it was the rain. For some reason the rain got me. And it rains here all the time, but I walked up to get the mail, and the smell of the rain just took me right back.
“And you start thinking about the faces that you saw and the things that you saw, and the emotions that you had then come back up,” he said.
There is also some anxiety about the public nature of the event being planned on Sunday. Many people in Oso wanted a quiet event with first responders and community members. But Highway 530 is a public highway so the general public can attend.
“We’ve been told that there’s going to be somewhere between 500 and gosh knows how many people out there,” said Robin Youngblood, who survived the slide. “I don’t know that I’m even going to go because of that. I don’t think that I can be around 500 or a 1,000 people.”
Youngblood said she is planning her own anniversary remembrances – and the life that will go on after.
Harper said what the people of Oso need now is a little space – especially this Sunday.
“Hopefully people can be respectful and not use that day as a day to come out and see the site as a tourist attraction, but to allow the families and the first responders to have their time out there.”