OSO, Wash. — President Obama traveled to the site of a devastating mudslide Tuesday, telling the community that America will be behind the community for as long as it takes to recover.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’ll be here as long as it takes.”
Obama arrived in Oso exactly one month after a massive mudslide devastated the community and another small logging town nearby, Darrington, killing 41 people. Two others are still missing.
The president spent an hour and 15 minutes meeting privately in a community chapel with relatives of those who had perished in the mudslide, the deadliest natural disaster in Washington since the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption 34 years ago.
“I have to say that the families that I met with showed incredible strength and grace through unimaginable pain and difficulty,” Obama said. “Uniformly, though, they all wanted to say thank you to the first responders. They were deeply appreciative of the efforts that everybody has made.”
Obama spoke at the Oso Fire Department, where a few dozen first responders — including members of the Washington Conservation Corps and FEMA Corps and some of the pilots who flew in to extract mudslide victims — sat in folding chairs. A banner declaring “Oso Strong” stretched across the opening of the firehouse, with a bright-red Snohomish County Fire District 25 truck parked outside. 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.
While driving to the fire department, Obama passed a pickup in a front yard. The truck was covered in football memorabilia and signs bearing the name of Jovon Mangual, a 13-year-old who died in the disaster.
Obama spoke of a letter he received from an unidentified firefighter. The writer said that people operating machinery were doing so with the utmost care and delicacy while trying to find victims, “because they understood that this wasn’t an ordinary job, this wasn’t just a matter of moving earth, that this was a matter of making sure that we were honoring and respecting the lives that had been impacted,” Obama said.
Obama said the firefighter pointed out not what he or she did but how hard others worked. The president said that when people are not lining up to take credit, it says a lot about a place’s character.
Obama said the nation has been inspired by how the community has spent the past month pitching in: lending chain saws, rain jackets and assistance, volunteers working 15-hour days while searching through mud 70 feet deep.
“One resident said: ‘We’re Oso. We just do it,’ ’’ the president said. “That’s what this community is all about.”
The adjutant general for Washington state, Bret D. Daugherty, said in an interview that there have been 900 people working on the scene over the past month, including 630 National Guard soldiers and airmen.
Dougherty, who met Obama when he arrived on Air Force One, said he thanked the president for coming. “It meant a lot to our soldiers and airmen.”
For several members of the crowd of 75, it was the first time they’d 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,” William Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said as he gestured toward the Navy aviators sitting next to him. “It feels like part of a healing process.”
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,” said Voelker. “The work is starting to wrap up. Things are never going to get back to normal here, but we are moving on.”
Before coming to the tiny town, which boasts just a handful of buildings, Obama viewed the devastation by helicopter, along with Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and the state’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats. One month after the mudslide, its impact was still fresh, with a swath of mud and debris covering the mountainside. Ripped-up trees littered the landscape, and the path of the Stillaguamish River was altered.
A half-mile stretch of state highway was still blocked by mud: The debris amounts to 100,000 cubic yards of material 20 feet high, according to a Transportation Department official. Bright-yellow excavators dug into the earth as part of an ongoing effort to recover bodies. Amid the wreckage, an American flag flew at half-staff.
Zezima reported from Washington.