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Deadly Mudslide

Most Locals Aware of Mudslide Risk in 'Little Piece of Paradise'

Image: Searchers stand in view of several destroyed homes

Searchers stand in view of several destroyed homes as they wait to begin looking through the debris of a mudslide, March 25, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Elaine Thompson / AP

With its mild winters, gorgeous summers, and close-knit community, real estate brokers call the tiny Washington community where a deadly mudslide struck a "little piece of paradise."

Oso, Wash., is so pleasant that residents, most well aware of the risk for mudslides there, still eagerly plant down roots.

"The benefits of this area are incredible. It is one of the most beautiful areas I've ever lived in, and I've lived in different parts of the United States," said Laura Kuhl, a real estate agent who has sold homes in Oso for six years and lives in nearby Arlington herself.

Saturday's mudslide killed at least 16 people and left nearly 100 more missing or unaccounted for. While Snohomish County officials insist they couldn't have predicted the slide, reports over the past couple of decades anticipated just that — and history has proven that the hillside in Oso wasn't stable.

Previous slides struck the area in 1949, 1951, 1967, and 2006, according to the Seattle Times. And a 2010 federally funded report warned county officials that the area was at high risk for fatal landslides.

"For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity," Rob Flaner, one of the report's primary authors, told the Times.

Whether or not officials recognized the risk of another one coming, it was something most residents had on their minds, Kuhl said. "But they wanted to live there because of the affordability and the beauty that it offered them. For them, it was worth it. They had a little piece of paradise."

Oso serves as a quiet reprieve for many workers of a lumber mill in the town of Darrington, located about 15 miles away.

"Every area has something, be it volcanoes or other natural disaster areas, that people outweigh to live there. They have a desire to have that private life, so people weigh it out before they buy," Kuhl said.

The small commuity, which is about 60 miles outside of Seattle and hugs the Stillaguamish River, doesn't experience a lot of turnover.

"The people that live there generally have lived there for many, many years, grew up in the area, are very acquainted with it," Kuhl said. "Other people have summer homes, little cabins and things along the river."

Irvin Wood and his wife, Judith, own a mobile home in Oso that they used as a weekend getaway. The Woods weren't there for Saturday's mudslide, but Irvin Wood told The Seattle Times people shouldn't have thought the government could prevent such a disaster.

“If the hillsides were going to slough away, they were going to slough away. That’s kind of what happens around here,” Wood told the paper.

Another resident, whose house was destroyed by the slide, disagreed.

"Nobody told us when we moved in," Robin Youngblood, who moved to Oso two years ago, told the New York Times. "I'm really mad at the government."

On Wednesday, as criticism mounted against local officials for not giving any warning signs, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington admitted that because this slide was so much larger than past ones, including the 2006 one, it caught them blind-sided.

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"The community did feel safe, [but] they knew the risks," he said, adding that officials had done "a lot of mitigation effort" on the river after the 2006 slide to try to prevent dangerous future events.

"People knew that this was a landslide-prone area. Sometimes big events just happen. Sometimes large events that nobody sees happens. This event happened, and I want to find out why," he said. "Sometimes landslides that are this catastrophic just happen."

Gene Bryson, the owner and manager of Windermere, a real estate firm in Arlington, said living along the river came with built-in safety concerns for Oso residents.

"In my opinion, they're typically more concerned about flooding than they are about landslides. Like any river, it floods once in a while," he said. "I seriously doubt whether there was anyone who lived there who wasn't aware that there were slides in the area. But it's like an earthquake: You never know if you had one whether you're never going to have another one or you're going to have one tomorrow."

Bob Drewel, who served as Snohomish County executive from 1991 to 2002, said flooding has always been a concern for officials, too. The county worked hard to identify areas in floodplains and prepare to respond in disasters during his tenure, he said.

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That preparation is apparent in the county's response to the mudslide, he said.

"What you can do is you need to be as prepared as possible," Drewel said.

He hoped this event would prompt local governments to make more of an effort to assess risks and share the information with residents, and suggested keeping a central database of information about landslide risks for homeowners and officials.

"The only value in this information is if other people know about it," he said,