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Obama tells Oso: We are with you

After visiting the mudslide site, the president talks to families and first responders.
President Obama arrives in Everett.

President Obama arrives in Everett. John Stang

At Paine Field, President Obama talks with, left to right, U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen, Suzan DelBene, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick.

At Paine Field, President Obama talks with, left to right, U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen, Suzan DelBene, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick. John Stang

President Barack Obama told the people of Oso Tuesday that the nation has their backs.

"When times get tough, we look out for each other. We get each other’s backs. And we recover and we build, and we come back stronger," he said.

With Gov. Jay Inslee and several members of Washington's congressional delegation, Obama visited Oso briefly Tuesday afternoon on his way to Asia where he will spend eight days touring and discussing issues with leaders there. Air Force One touched down at Everett's Paine Field shortly before 1 p.m. and lifted off again at about 5:20 p.m.

The Marine One helicopter, escorted by three other choppers, scoped out the massive mudslide site by air before Obama talked privately for roughly one hour and 15 minutes at a chapel with the families of victims. So far, 41 people have been confirmed dead with two others still missing from the March 22 tragedy.

About 900 people have been working on the recovery efforts. Federal aid has been routed to the landslide area. However Obama made no new announcements on Tuesday. Pool reporters accompanied the president on his helicopter to Oso, supplying details of the trip to other media. 

In khaki pants and blue windbreaker, Obama spoke to about 75 firefighters and paramedics at the Oso firehouse, standing under a handmade banner that read "Oso Strong" next to a bright red Snohomish County fire truck. The walls of the firehouse were papered with signs thanking the search and rescue volunteers, including a 20-foot yellow banner covered with the handprints of elementary school children. An old fire hose was used to rope off the area where Obama stood. 

Many of the workers have hardly taken a break to do anything besides eat or sleep since the disaster took place. 

"We've been working together for weeks, but this is the first time I feel we've really come together," said William Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, gesturing toward the Navy aviators sitting next to him. "It feels like part of a healing process," he said.

Clustered in the back of the firehouse were half a dozen AmeriCorps workers wearing day-glo vests, their uniforms in the search and recovery effort. For 14 days at a stretch, they've been mapping the area and installing pumps to drain water to make it easier to search the area. 

For people who have been so consumed by the dirty, intense work, the president's visit was a reminder that the outside world is still paying attention, said Derek Voelker, a Marine who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 before returning home to nearby Monroe.  "This day is kind of a marker, in a way," Voelker said. "The work is starting to wrap up. Things are never going to get back to normal here, but we are moving on."

At the Oso firehouse meeting, a White House transcript of Obama's remarks has him saying: "There are still families who are searching for loved ones. There are families who have lost everything, and it’s going to be a difficult road ahead for them. And that’s why I wanted to come here — just to let you know that the country is thinking about all of you."

Obama added: "We’re not going anywhere.  We’ll be here as long as it takes. Because while very few Americans have ever heard of Oso before the disaster struck, we’ve all been inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together and shown the love and support that they have for each other in ways large and small."

He continued: "Over the past month, we’ve seen neighbors and complete strangers donate everything from chainsaws to rain jackets to help with the recovery effort. We’ve seen families cook meals for rescue workers. We’ve seen volunteers pull 15-hour days, searching through mud up to 70 feet deep. One resident said, 'We’re Oso. We just do it.' That’s what this community is all about."

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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