Treacherous: The mudslide’s political fallout

The response to a disaster can be a catastrophe for political careers. Or a help.
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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.

The response to a disaster can be a catastrophe for political careers. Or a help.

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. 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.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the entire state federal delegation have a lot at stake. So, too, the county and the Legislature. Doubtless there will be calls to examine and perhaps redo the DNR permitting process for cutting timber. Doubtless, too, there will be lawsuits as people try to establish liability and blame. The legal and legislative worlds are murky and obstructive, and the timelines often extend outside the range of the attention spans of people focused on the tragic event, rather than its aftermath.

Certainly, if it turns out that logging or development practices are the smoking gun in the Oso slide, we still can't be assured that any major reforms will actually occur. Legislation conceived in the wake of tragedies has often died in Olympia (see gun control). Yet, it is an opportunity for state officials and elected to show some foresight and gumption to fix whatever's broken.

The upside for politicians is that the Oso aftermath is a chance to demonstrate real leadership. The question is, who has it?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.