Oso Relief Task Force Update

Oso/Hwy 530 Slide Response by Northwest Coast Presbytery

On March 22, 2014, a massive landslide wiped out an entire neighborhood along both sides of Hwy 530 near Oso, Washington.  This was one of the most devastating slides in terms of death in the history of the United States.  Forty-three people died in that one square mile of the steep slope along the North Fork of the Stillaquamish River.  It took months of work by hundreds of first responders and volunteers to find all of the bodies with the final one located on July 22.  The victims included a four month old baby, children ages 2, 4, 5, and 6, and several teenagers.  The oldest casualty was 91 years old.  All were from Washington with most from the Oso, Darrington and Arlington area.  One couple was from Everett.  At least 49 homes were totally devastated in this massive mudslide brought on by heavy rainfall during the previous 45 day period.  Following the slide, many volunteer and professional rescue and support organizations came together to search and recover victims and stabilize the area.  Over 75 search dogs and their handlers assisted.  Over 200 claims were made to FEMA as a result of the slide and its impact on the people of the surrounding community.

Immediately following the slide, Snohomish County organized telephone conferences which included representatives from county, state, and local government as well as charities and church groups.  Members of the Presbytery Oso Relief Committee participated in these calls.  As each group found their places to serve, an Unmet Needs committee was formed.  Early meetings were held in Darrington and Arlington because of the closure of Highway 530.  After the road was opened, joint meetings are held in the Rhodes River Ranch restaurant at Oso.  In each of these meetings, counselors and case managers present the needs of individuals and families, and representatives of participating churches and groups are able to step forward with specific help.  Janice Smith, Erv Roorda and Laura Jo Severson have attended some of these meetings.  Needs are still present and will extend far into the future as survivors deal with personal and financial loss.  

Our Presbytery created a small task force which included about twenty clergy and laity who held frequent conference call meetings.  Some of the most active members of that group were Laura Jo Severson from Friday Harbor P.C., Pat Sweeney from North Creek P.C., Nanette Howard from Edmonds P.C. and Todd Leighton from Mt. View PC., and these clergy members of our presbytery, Erv Roorda, Janice Smith, Alan Dorway, John Mason, and David Alger from Olympia Presbytery.   Our presbytery executive Corey Schlosser-Hall and Sarah Beard, our Communications Coordinator provided incredible support.  Our presbytery has received over $40,000.00 in donations to the Oso Relief Fund.  

The presbytery Oso Relief Committee decided that money from the fund would be used for long-range goals.  The first action was to be Caring for the Caregivers retreats to serve to serve those who had given so much of themselves to help others during this disaster.  The second action would be a partnering with Habitat for Humanity.  Erv, Janice, Nannette and Laura Jo coordinated plans for the retreats, and Pat Sweeney will be working on long-range plans for Habitat homes.

(L to R) Rev. Ed Smith, Liz Branch, and Rev. Jeanie Shaw. Photo: Rev. Dr. Erv Roorda

(L to R) Rev. Ed Smith, Liz Branch, and Rev. Jeanie Shaw.
Photo: Rev. Dr. Erv Roorda

During the first week of September, our Presbytery of the Northwest Coast was visited by three “angels”.  All three are members of the National Response Team of the PCUSA’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program.  They came from Arkansas, Arizona, and California.  The leader of this team was Liz Branch, a six-year veteran of PDA, The Rev. Ed Smith, a retired PCUSA pastor, and The Rev. Jeanie Shaw, a New Church Development pastor from Sacramento Presbytery.  All three are part of a team of over 100 volunteers, both clergy and laity, who respond to national disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires and other tragic events where there is significant loss of life and property.  The funding for their travel expenses was provided by the national PDA organization.  Working with this team gave members of our committee a chance to watch the PDA in action.

A similar team of four was here in mid-May to work with FEMA staff, fire fighters, police, social workers and county, state, and government employees who were first on the scene in the devastating Oso slide.  

Photo: Rev. Dr. Erv Roorda

Photo: Rev. Dr. Erv Roorda

The September visit by a PDA Team was designed to provide two workshops at Treacy-Levine/Camp Brotherhood with special focus on “Caring for the Caregiver”.  Approximately two dozen people from Oso, Darrington, Arlington and others who had worked as respondents were supported in learning how to better take care of themselves after several months of caregiving to others.  These included fire fighters, clergy, laity, nurses, social workers and counselors, both paid and volunteer, who have spent hundreds of hours caring for survivors of the massive landslide. The retreats at the Treacy-Levine Center at Camp Brotherhood provided comfortable over-night accommodations, healthy and nutritious meals, and a relaxing pastoral setting for times of conversation, reflection, exercise and the support of others who have served faithfully until fatigue and exhaustion were considered normal.  Our leaders from PDA used exercises video, printed material and time for conversation and meditation to focus on better self-care for the days ahead.  Some of the sharing was “gut-wrenchingly” painful to hear, while other conversations were sprinkled with smiles and laughter as we remembered the past twenty-four weeks of being “Oso Strong”.

When we think of past hurricanes, we remember names like Rita, Katrina, Ike and Ivan.  When we think of volcanic eruptions, we recall Mt. St. Helens.  Whenever we think of massive mudslides, the name will be Oso.

Future plans for the Oso Relief Committee will focus on working with Habitat for Humanity providing funding and work teams as homes are constructed.  This is a long-term process which has begun with securing land and appropriate permits and identifying families who would receive the homes.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote a hymn for disaster response called “God, We’ve Known Such Grief and Anger”.  It can be sung to the tune called “Babilone”, better known as “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”.  Let this hymn be our mutual prayer in the coming days!

“God, we’ve known such grief and anger
As we’ve heard your people cry.
We have asked you, ‘How much longer?’
We have sadly wondered, ‘Why?’
In this world of so much suffering,
May we hear your word anew:
‘I will never leave you orphaned;
I will not abandon you.

By your grace comes resurrection;
By your love, you cast out fear.
You give strength and sure direction
As we seek to serve you here.
You give comfort to the grieving,
May we trust in you, believing
Out of chaos, hope is born.
Hope is ours for, God, you love us!
You have claimed us by your grace.
And through Jesus, You have called us
To bring hope to every place.
In each rescue worker’s caring,
In each faithful volunteer,
In each Christian’s love and sharing
God, we glimpse Your kingdom here.

--This hymn is used by permission from Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.  Permission is granted for this hymn’s for free use by churches that support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette and Bruce Gillette are pastors at Limestone Presbyterian Church, 3201 Limestone Road, Wilmington, Delaware 19808-2198.  Carolyn would appreciate a copy of the worship bulletin from congregations which use the hymn.

Photo: Retrieved from WSDOT Flickr page