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Deadly Mudslide

'Really Cut Off': Mudslide Neighbors Struggle With Highway Closure

Image: Washington mudslide

A road block on State Route 530 between Darrington and Oso, Wash. MATT MILLS MCKNIGHT / EPA

One couple is spending an extra $200 a week on gas. A school teacher has already quit her job. Mom-and-pop businesses are worried there might not be a tourist season this year.

Nearly two weeks after a deadly mudslide in Washington state, the economically fragile town of Darrington is facing an uncertain future.

It didn't suffer any damage — the hillside collapsed onto neighboring Oso — but the wreckage spilled across a mile-long stretch of State Route 530, a crucial road that connected Darrington with much of the rest of the state.

While state authorities figure out how and when they will reopen the highway, Darrington residents and workers are coping with unwieldy detours and hellish commutes.

"We have ways to get out, but we're really cut off," said Roselie Rasmussen, 32, who is on the board of the Darrington Area Business Association and runs a massage business.

Many of the 1,400 people who live in Darrington are reluctant to complain, given the devastation just 15 miles away, where at least 27 people were crushed to death by a rolling wave of mud on March 22.

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But as the days pass, the realities of life without SR 530 aren't getting any easier for Darrington residents who work in Arlington, Everett or even Seattle because local jobs are so scarce with just one sawmill left in town.

Karen Egtvedt, 53, said her 45-minute trip to her job at a nursing home in Stanwood has jumped to two hours. Her husband, a sprinkler fitter in Seattle, faces a three-hour journey each way.

"Last night I got home at 4 a.m.," she said.

She estimated the two of them are spending an extra $40 a day on gas — or $800 a month.

"I've been trying to talk my husband into getting some place to stay around the other side, but he's afraid someone will break into the house and rob us while we're gone," Egtvedt said.

With the highway bifurcated, Darrington residents generally have to take the road north to State Route 20, which connects with the all-important Interstate 5.

A one-way dirt and gravel road known as Mountain Loop was opened for local and emergency access only.

It's unclear how long Darrington will have to endure the detours.

"We have been developing several options for the long-term future of SR 530, but it’s still too soon to know exactly what that may be or give a definite time-frame," said Bart Treece, spokesman for Washington State Department of Transportation.

"There is still an active search operation being conducted by Snohomish County and we cannot properly assess the roadway. We’re sensitive to the needs of the community and understand the importance of SR 530 of keeping traffic and freight moving to and from Darrington."

At a Tuesday briefing, Steve Harris, the supervisor of the east side of the recovery zone, put the situation in stark terms.

"There’s areas where the highway is just gone," he said. "From what I’ve seen, it’s going to take a long time."

Kevin Ashe, who owns Darrington's only grocery story, the I.G.A., and sits on the City Council, is concerned about the cascade effect of the road closure.

If residents can't get to their jobs easily, they may eventually decide to move closer to their workplaces. That would leave local businesses like his with a dwindling customer base.

The town gets a tourism bump in the summer, but those people come through 530, so businesses that cater to the vacation crowd might take a big hit.

Then there are those who come to Darrington to work.

Image: Highway 530 disappears into a massive mudslide that destroyed Oso, Washington
Highway 530 disappears into a massive mudslide that destroyed Oso, Wash. on March 31. RICK WILKING / Reuters

"Right now we have four or five teachers who live in Arlington. One of them has already quit and there's a chance we could lose the others before the year's up," Ashe said.

Ashe said he is confident that state officials will work as quickly as possible to either reopen 530 or create an alternative route that is more convenient than the current one.

"Not opening it is not an option," said Rasmussen. "If it doesn't reopen it would become unlivable out here."