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Treacherous: The mudslide’s political fallout

The response to a disaster can be a catastrophe for political careers. Or a help.
Gov. Jay Inslee, in the blue jacket, and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, center, get an update from Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin on the far right.

Gov. Jay Inslee, in the blue jacket, and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, center, get an update from Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin on the far right. Governor's Office/Flickr

Tech Sgt. Taylor Bates and Tech. Sgt. Tony Rohrenbach, members of the Washington Air National Guard 141 Civil Engineer Squadron discuss how to remove debris.

Tech Sgt. Taylor Bates and Tech. Sgt. Tony Rohrenbach, members of the Washington Air National Guard 141 Civil Engineer Squadron discuss how to remove debris. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Rory Featherston WA ANG

Disasters always go through phases, not unlike the stages of grief. There's is shock, denial, gratitude, anger and ultimately a long, slow slog back to a semblance of normalcy.

One phase is the political, and while it isn't much publicized yet in the Oso mudslide tragedy — we're still in the rescue, recovery and grief phase — it will increasingly move to center stage.

Federal Emergency Management disaster staff have people assigned to keep elected officials in the loop and communicating. When those officials visit a disaster site, everyone is on alert — and generally their best behavior — knowing the cameras will be there. Careers can be made or broken by false steps or perceived insensitivity. Heckuva job, Brownie!

Politicians can be the heroes of disaster aid, or goats of the aftermath. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is an example. He was lauded for determination to get disaster aid for his state, and also widely praised for his presence in the wake of hurricane Sandy. But he was heavily criticized by fellow Republicans for his embrace of President Obama at a critical point during the 2012 campaign, and more recently he's been accused of politicizing the distribution of disaster aid.

Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who presided at the time of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, burned up much of her credibility by seeming to cave to timber company demands to limit the size of the restricted danger zone around the mountain before it blew and for "giving short shrift" to local officials afterward. Running for re-election in 1980, she lost in the primary to her Democratic challenger, not solely because of St. Helens, but in part.

In the Oso case, the political fallout will center around what appears to be the flawed process for evaluating the hill site for logging by the Department of Natural Resources, and questions about allowing development at the foot of a known slide area, despite repeated warnings. The disaster response will also be dissected in after-action reports and generalized second-guessing. Expect a lot of boots to get muddied in the process.

Criticism and praise will tend to follow partisan biases. Democrats will praise the importance of government response and look to call for better government regulation. Republicans will tend to praise local resiliency, and will tend to criticize Democrats for decisions that were made on their watch. It is, after all, Democrats who have been running Snohomish County and state land policy.

The timing of criticism is all-important. It has to be done with sensitivity, not intruding on the personal grief of the community, and it can be as treacherous as quicksand. State representative Elizabeth Scott, a Tea Party Republican from Monroe, said she was disturbed, according to the Everett Herald, about "what she sees as a slow and haphazard response by government agencies." That drew a rebuke from Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard, who said, "For people to be sitting back in the comfort of their home or their office second-guessing ... is just a terrible mistake." Attacking first responders is not a good first response.

The Oso disaster will also be a key test for rookie Democratic Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, who is running for her first re-election in the First District, which includes the slide area. It's a swing district, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the GOP wants to get that swing district back in their column. DelBene will be held accountable for the effectiveness of the federal response as well as how she performs addressing local needs.

A stumble could prove fatal to her re-election chances. Seattlepi.com political columnist Joel Connelly has already called on DelBene to flex her muscle to get President Barack Obama to visit the Oso site, but such a move could be seen as overtly political and unhelpful, given Obama's current popularity ratings. DelBene will need to deliver federal help without seeming to be a political creature. She might not be able to win many new votes in rural Snohomish County, but she could lose votes in her district with pr flubs.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 1, 9:08 p.m. Inappropriate

The cynic in me says that gravity will continue work regardless of whatever actions or inactions are taken in Olympia. Buyer beware.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Good take. You could have said a bit more about the struggle of "earth science" professionals to get their message across in the face of special interests. I was accused of being insensitive but I felt people needed to know about the bureaucratic screw-ups early on and the extent of the damage in human lives -- especially clear-cutting the slope directly over the slide. You might feel the same way if you spent your life trying to get people to make intelligent "land use" decisions. Washington State seems to have a unique way of writing off human loss as being due to nature rather than blatant human errors. Anyway, hope you do a follow up Knute to see how politically accurate you are; and meanwhile I'll send $5 to help the local boys buy a new fire engine.

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 7:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I wouldn't hold my breath about revision of Washington's antiquated horrendous vesting doctrine, amongst the loosest and developer friendly in the country. Or putting some teeth into the Growth Management Act, especially its critical area provisions. Instead, we are much more likely to see more so-called "regulatory reform," AKA greasing the skids for inappropriate development in inappropriate places. That's the historical pattern, anyway.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Skip,

With all due respect, this commentary seems to be something produced by a writer who has been reading clippings but not doing any first-hand reporting. Frankly, I think you have pulled it out of your rectum.
You should have resisted vain-glorious urge to write this.
Instead, I'd suggest, you should have deferred to the journalists at the scene, who are treating this as a real hard-to-comprehend, heart-breaking disaster with terrible human costs. It's not some topic for thumb-sucking speculation.
And, for the record, I am the editor of the daily newspaper that covers Snohomish County. Not jut when there are national stories, but every day and every week.
Neal Pattison
The Daily Herald

NealMedia

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Snohomish County Council is packed with the "property rights" contingent, and that philosophy flows down (no pun intended) to decision and policy makers in the Planning and Development Group. Do you really think there was a political will to deny building permits even after the 2006 slide and the mounting geology reports?

When the N.Fork Sauk river avulsed back in 2006(?) the Council pushed on Planning to rebuild the road, even though it only served 14 properties with 6 structures and one full time resident. After flushing millions (really) in engineering and environmental work they finally gave way to the obvious and gave up on the road. It would have been easier to just put up a road closed sign and call it good. They settled for two drainage "sucker" trucks from FEMA as a consolation prize.

While I have strong sympathy for the land owner's loss - the hazard information was readily available. Due diligence in all sales. The County; however, did not do their job.

Treker

Posted Fri, Apr 4, 5:22 p.m. Inappropriate

There you go again, Treker, with your professional arm-chair quarterbacking. Must be nice to be so superior.

Posted Fri, Apr 4, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I must say I agree with the editor of The Daily Herald. Too much journalism these days is written and spoken by people far removed from the scene of the story, giving them no empathy or perspective for the scope of the tragedy. This story seems to ignore the enormous scope of the tragedy and suffering of the families involved with this incident. It kind of reminds me of the coverage on CNN of the Flight 370 incident, which very much remains a mystery. The coverage has gotten SO bad and desperate that the hosts are speaking with people talking about aliens and other fantasy scenarios. Sometimes it's best just to quit talking (or writing) and let things play out on their own.

Posted Sat, Apr 5, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

A journalist doesn't need to be right on the scene of the disaster to understand -- through readily-available research, from the Seattle Times yet -- that there were many screwups that led to this. Understanding those preliminary steps doesn't mean you can't sympathize with the awful human loss. It does mean that you use both your heart and your brain. So, NealMedia, your characterization of this as a "hard-to-comprehend" event doesn't seem very accurate.

sarah90

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

The Herald published a 2005 landslide map that they found in a report entitled "Snohomish County Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan" or SCNHMP. This map clearly shows that Point Wells, where an "Urban Village" is being proposed, is also in a landslide zone. The Washington State Department of Ecology has a photo and a little blurb about the January 1997 landslide in the Town of Woodway at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/landslides/show/woodway.html

We'll see if our planners and politicians have the guts to keep the future residents of this proposed development out of harm's way.

lacquer

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

the trouble with the golden rule..you must first look to your own actions..when the Nisqually hit the whole north end of capitol hill moved and yet the state wants to bore three tunnels thru it, the city still issues building permits..way back when, brian songtag was auditor and the 520 project was only 4 billion he stated that to bring the existing structure between foster to I5 would cost 3 billion..for those doing core math that's 3/4's of the budget..I've been wondering myself what has changed since the state is now asking for I billion?..as to the slide my only input is this the Indians control the river and after the first slide a log boom was installed, has anyone amped up google earth to see how well it was maintained..i'm no hydrologist but even I know that logs standing at 90 degrees to the flow drive the flow into the hillside, undercutting the slope..i do know it wouldn't take long..go dems..go Indians..

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

In the "political phase" of dealing with a major disaster each constituency group tends to project it's own narrative into the situation not matter the fact set of the situation.
In the case the anti-logging crowd will try to hold the stage distracting media attention from the geologists who are starting to explain that the cause of this slide was the soil structure 200 feet deep in the hillside not in a clear cut on top of the hill.
The land-use planning constituency will castigate Snohomish County government for not buying out local property owners ignoring the fact that this area is the heart of Freedom County which was represented for many years by a powerful libertarian county councilman.
Anti-government politicians from the flat lands have already quickly spoken up using the Oso slide as yet another example of the incompetence of governments, even first responders.

Lytton

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 9:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Awww geez, Skip.
Get out of your easy chair and do some reporting.
Filtering through media reports to arrive at your "deep" wisdom is totally lame. This commentary reflects poorly on the reputation you have worked to build for the past 30 years.
"I read the Seattle Times, therefore I am qualified to comment."
Oh, please.

NealMedia

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