Washington mud-slide tragedy – a catalogue of stupidities?

The landslide tragedy in Washington State has killed at least 16 and perhaps up to 24 people. I had first thought that it was another natural disaster to be compared to volcano eruptions or earthquakes or hurricanes. In fact it was a minor earthquake (magnitude 1.1) on 10th March which may have contributed to this landslide but which was probably not the trigger.

But then I came across this article yesterday in The Seattle Times. The area devastated has seen many landslides in the past. Just in modern times, landslides occurred in 1949, in 1951, in 1967 and most recently in 2006. Yet people continued living and building new homes on a hill known as “Slide Hill”.  How did such building get permitted? And I wonder why we so readily abandon common sense; on the one hand in ignoring real and present and immediate dangers as in this case; or on the other in wasting billions on theoretical and imagined dangers in the far distant future as with “global warming.

And if all that the Seattle Times reports is correct, then this was not a natural disaster but one caused by plain stupidity. It reads like a catalogue of stupidities – but that does not make the tragedy of lives lost any the less:

  • The hill that collapsed last weekend is referred to by geologists with different names, including Hazel Landslide and Steelhead Haven Landslide, a reference to the hillside’s constant movement. Some residents, according to a 1967 Seattle Times story, referred to it simply as “Slide Hill.” …….. the two creeks in the area are known as “Slide Creek” and “Mud Flow Creek.
  • Since the 1950s, geological reports on the hill that buckled during the weekend in Snohomish County have included pessimistic analyses and the occasional dire prediction. But no language seems more prescient than what appears in a 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”
  • Daniel Miller, a geomorph­ologist, also documented the hill’s landslide conditions in a report written in 1997 for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes. He knows the hill’s history, having collected reports and memos from the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. That’s why he could not believe what he saw in 2006, when he returned to the hill within weeks of a landslide that crashed into and plugged the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, creating a new channel that threatened homes on a street called Steelhead Drive. Instead of seeing homes being vacated, he saw carpenters building new ones. “Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river,” he said.
  • …. John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “It was considered very safe,” Pennington said. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”
  • At least five homes were built in 2006 on Steelhead Drive, according to Snohomish County records. The houses were granted “flood hazard permits” that required them to be jacked up 1 to 2 feet above “base flood elevation,” according to county building-permit records. Another home was built in the neighborhood in 2009. Snohomish County Executive John Lovick and Public Works Director Steve Thomsen said Monday night they were not aware of the 1999 report. 
  • In 1969, a geologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, Gerald Thorsen, submitted a memorandum after visiting the site of the slide. He explained that “aerial photographs taken as far back as 1932 show the river has cut at this clay bank for many years.”
  • In 1962, the state installed a “revetment” — a sort of rock barrier — to try to protect and support the riverbank. But oozing mud “overtopped” the barrier two years later. In 1967 the barrier was buried when a massive slide hit, damaging dozens of homes.
  • An investigation done in the 1980s said the landslide activity had expanded from 10 acres in 1942 to 35 acres in 1970.

It would seem to be a natural consequence of allowing alarmism to flourish unchecked that common sense is abandoned. Real dangers in the immediate future are ignored and imaginary ones in the far distant future are inflated.

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