Bartlit: Mudslide Validates Favorite Doctrines

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

News of this spring’s deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash., fades slowly from the public mind.

Oso is barely a mini-dot on the map. Yet the microcosm of events that met there reflects the curious array of forces that governs the whole nation.

The Oso story has two most intriguing parts: the persistent powers of nature and the stubborn traits of humans.   

The persistency of nature set the stage in Oso. The hillside that swept away homes and lives had slid on eight or nine occasions going back to 1949, including a huge slide in 2006.

The site of the repeated slides had its own colorful name – Steelhead Haven Landslide – and a local nickname – “Slide Hill.”

A consultant’s report to the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 concluded that the site had “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.” Nature leaves signs for the wary eye. Still, new houses were built on the plain below Slide Hill.

A $1 million retaining wall was built in 2006 to reinforce the riverbank below the hill. Slide Hill waited to slide again … while the risk grew worse. Trees near the uphill edge of the slide area were clear-cut to supply low-cost building materials. First the trees, then slowly their roots, were lost as anchors against soil erosion, both above ground and below. See the mysterious mix of nature and human nature.

We learn many times over that nature cannot be told what to do. The everlasting question is how much can humans be told what to do. Humans do not like being stopped from doing as they wish. The trait looms large in every stage of life from newborns to oldsters.

Some who lived on the plain below Slide Hill said no one ever told them about any special hazards.  

At least one large Seattle-based law firm specializes in issues of landslides and mudslides. The firm PCVA Law filed suits in 2011 against lumber companies and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources for allowing timber cutting in unstable areas.

Actions of many kinds were working away when the ominous heavy rains of 2014 set in.

The losses suffered at Oso will consume government resources for months to come. State and federal disaster relief agencies fund search and rescue efforts and financial help to survivors.

Private resources came to Oso through the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
Lawsuits to apportion fault will expend public and private funds for years.

What does all this mean? It means the sum of what people care to see. The lessons a person takes from the listed facts depend on a person’s politics. 

The string of events at Oso is easy to cherry-pick to validate your own fond doctrines. For example, the evidence mounts, which proves:

  • Government regulation fails in its task and wastes tax money.
  • Government bureaucrats kowtow to corporate clout.
  • Corporations are self-serving enemies of good.
  • Companies make products suitable for thrifty consumers.
  • Science from consultants is not a magic cure-all.    
  • Government resources rescue lives in times of crisis.
  • Ineffective regulation costs lives and tax money.       
  • Human charity comes to the rescue in times of need.  
  • Lawyers are grasping blackguards.
  • Lawyers are knights in shining armor.
  • Humans blame others for their own inattention and bad luck.
  • Blind spots are featured in every quarter.

The deadly mudslide in Oso shines light on the ways and means of people and politics. All varieties of timeworn belief emerge in the glints.

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