Skip to main content

Deadly mudslide, a disaster that didn't have to happen

By Daniel Miller
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
A rescue dog and its handlers work the site of a catastrophic landslide near Darrington, Washington, on Saturday, March 29. A week earlier, a landslide crossed the North Fork of the nearby Stillaguamish River, causing multiple deaths and massive damage to homes. A rescue dog and its handlers work the site of a catastrophic landslide near Darrington, Washington, on Saturday, March 29. A week earlier, a landslide crossed the North Fork of the nearby Stillaguamish River, causing multiple deaths and massive damage to homes.
HIDE CAPTION
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Miller predicted possible catastrophic mudslide in Washington 15 years ago
  • Miller: Engineers tried to shore up site and offered to buy out homeowners in danger
  • Miller: Despite warnings, construction went on; some didn't realize there was a risk
  • He says assessments of danger should be readily available to potential homeowners

Editor's note: Daniel Miller is the co-owner of M2 Environmental Services and co-founder of Earth Systems Institute and TerrainWorks. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN) -- I am a geomorphologist: a scientist fascinated by the interactions of storms, floods, fires and landslides. We humans may feel a bit above that fray -- we refer to the "natural environment" as though it were a separate thing. Yet, as a landslide near Oso, Washington, tragically highlighted on Saturday, we remain subject to the forces of nature like all the rest of Earth's creatures.

At the latest count, 27 people are confirmed dead and 22 are still missing. A painful part of the natural order of things.

Daniel Miller
Daniel Miller

Unlike those other inhabitants of Earth, however, we know something of how things work. This, too, was highlighted last week, when the Seattle Times reported on a study I did 15 years ago, one of many for the Hazel site, which had experienced recurring landslides. In that study, conducted for the Army Corps of Engineers, I had written of the possibility of a "large catastrophic failure" based on numerical analyses that indicated potential instability of a huge mass of material above the zone of previous landslides. As a scientist, I knew that material would someday be on the valley floor.

As intended, that report guided further work. Tracy Drury, an engineer who reported on the site for the Army Corps of Engineers, was also clear that "catastrophic failure potential places human lives and property at risk." He came up with designs to shore up the slope. Those designs were put in place; everything was done that could be done to minimize the potential of a future landslide.

A pleasant rural neighborhood, Steelhead Haven, sat directly across the river from the site. Drury's most relevant design to protect lives was to try to buy up the properties and move people away. There were meetings to discuss these ideas, but nothing came of them.

I wasn't involved in the discussions, but I did attend a community meeting to discuss my analyses -- after a landslide in 2006 felled trees and crashed into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River across the valley into the edge of Steelhead Haven. One response to my presentation, I was told, was that I was there to take their land.

Construction of new homes continued, even after 2006. In some cases, people were informed of the risk, but didn't trust the messenger, or decided it was an acceptable risk. I learned that some people were unaware that they lived across the river from an active landslide.

Revised number of missing in Washington
Response to landslide is 'very humbling'
Family finds dog amid landslide rubble

I've been asked, "Where does responsibility lie?" The cast is large. Homeowners choose to live in beautiful, but dangerous, places. Contractors and developers then build those homes, Realtors sell them, bankers finance them, local officials grant permits, governments set zoning rules, and voters elect the officials who make those rules.

At every step, those decisions need to be made from positions of knowledge and understanding of the potential consequences. Then who is responsible to ensure that scientific findings are disseminated and clearly understood? The scientists? The government? The media?

We cannot help those lost at Oso, but we can look to do better in the future. This is not the last landslide, flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, drought, tornado, or any of a long list of threatening events that we face. Scientists work hard to understand these processes; we need to ensure that everyone makes decisions fully aware of the potential consequences of their actions.

We have work to do. I'm getting calls from concerned homeowners wanting to know where to get information. It's not easy to find. Landslide hazards have not been systematically mapped across the state, much less the country. Where work has been done, maps are hard to find. If found, they are difficult to interpret.

Many local, state and federal agencies are working to improve this situation, but progress is slow and funding is tight. Mapping hazards is not a national priority. Yet it seems that, if my smartphone can tell me how to drive to the nearest coffee shop, it should be able to tell me what's known about the hazards where I'm standing. We have the technology; we need the public interest to drive the required investment.

Like most scientists, I toil in obscurity to make my small contribution. Maybe we scientists are missing the point. The problem with toiling in obscurity is that no one hears us. We need better special effects. Getting our messages across can save lives, although it will involve getting houses off flood plains, coastal bluffs and debris-flow fans. In general, folks don't appreciate having a scientist, or government official, suggest they move. Perhaps there is another approach. It took a massive information campaign to dramatically cut consumption of cancer-causing cigarettes, surely we can motivate people to examine the facts in this case and do things that are ultimately good for all of us.

In 1997, a colleague and I co-founded a small not-for-profit institute seeking to provide land managers with the data and tools they need to make informed decisions. We both had young children; we saw it as a way to help ensure their generation would have something worth managing. That's gone well, but our targeted audience is too small and public funding too limited. To really change things, everyone should have the tools and data to make informed decisions, and use them.

For that to happen, these tools need to be as cool and easy to use as the latest smartphone app; lives depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT