The Washington Post

President Obama visits town devastated by mudslide


President Obama arrives to deliver remarks at the firehouse in Oso, Wash., on Tuesday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

— 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.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Katie Zezima is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential election. She previously served as a White House correspondent for The Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Republicans debated Saturday night. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Get caught up on the race.
Highlights from Saturday's GOP debate
Except for an eminent domain attack from Bush, Trump largely avoided strikes from other candidates.

Christie went after Rubio for never having been a chief executive and for relying on talking points.

Carson tried to answer a question on Obamacare by lamenting that he hadn't been asked an earlier question about North Korea.
The GOP debate in 3 minutes
Listen
Play Video
Quoted
We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they're booing me? I don't want their money!
Donald Trump, after the debate crowd at St. Anselm's College booed him for telling Jeb Bush to be "quiet."
Listen
Play Video
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She's planning to head Sunday to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
55% 38%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.