Coping With Tragedy
4:46 pm
Tue April 1, 2014

Oso: A Tight-Knit Community Takes Care Of Its Own

The catastrophic mudflow that destroyed lives and homes a week and a half ago has come to be known as the Oso Landslide. That's led many to think the town has been wiped away.

But this town that few had heard of  is still there. And its slogan, “Oso Strong,” has gone around the world.

The Town Remains Intact

Oso is just east of Arlington on a road that opens to a green valley. The Stillaguamish River winds south of the town, then snakes north to the disaster site about four miles away. The name of the town means "bear" — and there are many that still roam the area.

The Oso General Store has been closed for several years. One of the painted panels shows a bear. The town is named "bear" in Spanish.
Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph

It used to be a peaceful place, a logging town so obscure that smartphones automatically corrected the name to something else. But now, dozens of emergency vehicles cluster around the fire station, turned command post, on the outskirts of town. Sirens blare, and people shout orders as they coordinate the all-consuming task of searching through the vast pile of mud that destroyed nearly everything in its path.

Beyond the fire house, though, the town itself remains intact. There’s a sawmill, a chapel and what used to be a general store. The store, and its gas station, have been closed for years.

The town’s pastor, Gary Ray, said the local economy is depressed. "There is no industry here. It was logging, it was dairy, but those industries are not strong anymore." People who live in Oso tend to work out of town, in North Seattle, Everett and elsewhere in the region. Few people are home during the day.

'Some Of The Families Go Way Back'

Nichole Stinson's family has lived here for generations.

"We lost our post office in 1930-something," she said, "and the town burnt down in the 1900s, and the general store has been out of commission for two years."

She lives just down the street from the general store in a 100-year-old home where her family is the third owner. Her veranda is lined with dirty boots and hung with jackets. Family members have been working at the slide every day since the disaster engulfed the Steelhead neighborhood, several miles down the road.

Stinson said she’s the 12th generation in this area. Her grandchildren make the 14th. Her family’s not the only one with deep roots.

"Gosh, some of the families go way back,” she said. And that's only magnified the loss the community is feeling.

'The Whole Wide World Is Looking At Oso'

People from the outside have descended on the town to help.

At the chapel, JoAnne Fitzgerald is one of them. "We're coming up to do the chaplaincy work and to help people debrief and deal with all those kind of things because there's so much trauma," she said.

I don't feel like I have the right to cry yet. I would embarrass myself to cry.

And it's not just rescue workers and volunteers. It's the media and the curious as well. But the desire to care for their own is strong here. Stinson said they’re private people who are in pain.

"We're protective the same way anyone would be protective," she said in an interview. "Your natural instinct is to protect your best friend who is grieving, or your family member who is grieving and lost their home ... The whole wide world is looking at Oso. We're in a fishbowl here."

Stinson said many people in Oso haven’t cried yet. Her family is safe. She hasn’t cried.

"I don’t feel like I have the right to cry yet," Stinson said. "I would embarrass myself to cry."

That’s because of the courage of the people who have been hurt by this disaster, like Seth Jefferds, who lost his wife and grandchild.

Nichole Stinson's veranda is lined with boots and clothing from the slide recovery effort. She says the boots can't come into the house because the mud is considered hazardous.
Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph

"And he — day one — was out there looking for his wife and his granddaughter, and his daughter with him. Until they found them," Stinson said.

She said there are great stories yet to be told, but it's hard to tell them now while people are still living the crisis. "These are our stories right now," Stinson said. "Not the world's stories."

She said they can become the world’s stories — after the immediate crisis is past.

That resolve to protect those grieving and to put on muddy boots to aid the recovery every day is Oso Strong.