The small-town mayor who was Oso's hidden hero

Barb Tolbert, Arlington's resident superwoman, shepherded her community through a maze of federal disaster response, political visits, budget deficits and international media attention.
Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert

Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert Credit: Mary Bruno

Mayor Barb Tolbert got to the park early that morning. She wasn’t scheduled to deliver her kickoff speech until noon, but she wanted to greet the folks who were there setting up booths for the town’s annual Relay for Life Festival. After an overnight downpour, Saturday March 22 dawned clear and sunny, a perfect spring morning in the Stillaguamish Valley.

The first signs of trouble, says Tolbert, “were the sirens on Highway 9. They kept coming. And I knew something wasn’t right.”

Within minutes, she learned that a mudslide in nearby Oso was blocking the road and maybe the river; that flooding (“An emergency we were familiar with,” she says.) was a real possibility; and that local fire and police were about to start evacuating the residents upriver. “We didn’t know the extent of it then,” says Tolbert. She did know that some of the people setting up booths in the park lived in Oso. “So I told them, if you have people at home, make a call.”

A little after 11 a.m., Tolbert and her management team made a call too and, for the first time since she became mayor in 2012, the City of Arlington activated its Emergency Response plan. While her department heads assembled at the Emergency Response Center next door to City Hall, Barb Tolbert walked back out to Legion Park and, with the throb of helicopters overhead, kicked off the 2014 Relay for Life.

For Tolbert and Arlington’s city managers, that Saturday morning, March 22, was the beginning of an exhausting blur of tragedy and logistics, and a mass invasion of strangers. Local, state and federal emergency personnel, 117 different relief agencies, more than 100 media organizations and a wave of politicos, from the county executive and governor on up to the president himself. All of it taking place around the clock, in the midst of a grisly search for bodies, on a dangerously unstable slope, under the relentless glare of an international spotlight.

Being in the Arlington Emergency Response Center in those first few hours, says the town’s fire chief Bruce Stedman, “was like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with a thousand bits of information coming at you at 100 miles an hour, and knowing that every decision you’re making is going to be evaluated by the world.”

Tolbert ceded tactical decisions early on to emergency response pros like Stedman, and to Northwest Incident Command, which took over operations at 6 p.m. Saturday evening. She recognized quickly that in the complex maze of moving parts, “My job was care and comfort. And to find resources when people asked me to.”

View of downtown Arlington from the gazebo at Legion Park. Credit: Mary Bruno

Tolbert wasn’t trained in crisis management per se, but she possesses skills and talents that make her well suited for many aspects of the job. She’s smart, organized and goal-oriented, able to see both the forest and the trees. She loves data and details and building systems from scratch. And she is preternaturally social. “Barb is excellent with people,” says Bruce Angell, her partner of 14 years. “She really connects.”

Indeed, Tolbert is that rarest of breeds: a number-cruncher with personality. (And also a taste for Tequila, and a “total girl crush” on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.) Her talent for strategic thinking, data-based decision making, collaborative style and genuine likability all hint at a career beyond Arlington. If hard times reveal things about people, the crucible of Oso showed that Barb Tolbert is ready to play on a bigger stage.

She grew up in a big family — five sisters and a brother — that moved all around the “tri-state area.” (That would be Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.) Her father, a mechanical engineer who specialized in boilers, was transferred every few years so Tolbert spent her childhood on the go, attending 14 different schools by the time she finished 12th grade.

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Posted Fri, Jul 11, 12:10 a.m. Inappropriate

What a great article on an inspiring human being and the resilience of the human spirit in the wake of tragedy. Thanks for telling Barb Tolbert's story! I hope she achieves her vision for Arlington before heading off to a larger stage, even though she is clearly ready for that.

One tiny gripe: Why did the headline have to specify that this is a "female mayor"? Her gender has nothing to do with the story. And Jay Inslee was not referred to in the article as the "male governor".


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