President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised the strength of a small Washington town in mourning after a powerful mudslide took the lives of more than three dozen people, pledging that the entire country “will be there as long as it takes” for the community to recover.
“We’re not going anywhere, we’ll be there as long as it takes,” Obama said at firehouse in Oso, Wash. “While very few Americans had heard of Oso before this disaster struck, we’ve all been inspired by the incredible way the community has come together,” he added.
Obama's visit comes one month after the deadly mudslides that killed more than 40 people and destroyed dozens of homes along the Stillaguamish River in the northwest Washington community. Crews continue to dig through the debris in search of two people who remain missing.
The president took an aerial tour of the one-square-mile of destruction that flattened homes and smothered trees after the hill collapsed and charged into a residential area at an estimated 60 miles per hour. As the president flew overhead, yellow excavators continued the cleanup efforts and search for bodies below.
Obama also met with families of the victims, saying they uniformly wanted to thank first responders who have been working tirelessly for a month straight.
During his remarks, the president cited a letter he received from a firefighter who praised his colleagues for the delicacy they have shown throughout the recovery process.
“They understood that this was no ordinary job, this wasn't a matter of just moving earth,” Obama said. “This was a matter of making sure we were honoring and respecting the lives that had been impacted.
Earlier this month, Obama declared that a major disaster had occurred in the town 55 miles northeast of Seattle, opening the door for financial aid from the federal government to assist victims and help the state fund the recovery process.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who petitioned the government for aid, estimated the financial losses from the disaster had hit around $10 million just days after the slide. Officials fear that figure could rise dramatically before cleanup is complete.
Questions have arisen following the slide as to whether or not residents near the collapsed hillside were warned about the dangers of living in the area.
County officials drafted a plan in 2004 that suggested buying homes in the potential path of a landslide as a way to "remove the risk to human life and structures.” Instead, documents show authorities chose to stabilize the base of a nearby slope while allowing residents to remain in their homes. Survivors of one of the country's most devastating landslides now question whether more could have been done to prevent the tragedy.
“We’re going to make sure we’re with you every step of the way,” Obama said.
Obama continues on from Washington state to Tokyo, Japan, where he begins a one-week tour of Asia with stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.