One Month From Mudslide, Wash. Governor Takes Stock Of Damage

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee offers an update on the deadly mudslides near the town of Oso in March. President Obama is visiting Oso on Tuesday.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama got his first look today at the devastation left behind a month ago when a mudslide struck the tiny town of Oso, Washington. A hillside gave way, burying homes and roads. The death toll now stands at 41. Two people are still missing. This afternoon, President Obama spoke to a crowd gathered at the Oso Firehouse.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The country is thinking about all of you and have been throughout this tragedy.

BLOCK: To talk about the impact and the way forward, I'm joined now by the state's governor, Jay Inslee. Governor Inslee, welcome to the program.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Why don't you describe a bit what Oso looks like now? It's been one month since this mudslide.

INSLEE: Well, physically, it is still obviously a scene of just incredible devastation. This mudslide is something that you really cannot comprehend. I know people have seen photographs of it, but until you stand there and see a mountain, literally, travel across the valley, across a river, across a road up the other side a mile, you really cannot comprehend either the scope or the destructive force of this slide. So the physical part of this slide still remains something that just boggles the imagination.

But what it looks like today is also scenes of great compassion and great inspiration and great volunteerism that really show you some good news coming out of the Stillaguamish Valley as well.

BLOCK: I know there have been workers and volunteers who've been working for weeks now trying to recover the bodies of victims from this mudslide. Have you talked with them and gotten any sense of how they're doing, how they're getting through this?

INSLEE: These are resilient, strong people, both individually and more importantly as a community. I've never witnessed a community that pulled together with such vibrance and diligence. I mean, when you go to these town hall meetings, there'll be like 500 people in the little Darrington gym, a little town just up the road from Oso. And all 500 people will be helping each other literally in these meetings and getting hay for their horses and helping find the loved one. And so they have each other and they are leaning on each other heavily right now. And, of course, the nation and we appreciate everyone who's helped these families get through this who've lost literally everything.

BLOCK: Governor Inslee, there was a mile of state highway that was buried under something like 25 feet of mud, cut off communities on either side. What are you hearing from business owners about the economic toll this has taken, along with the human toll, and what will be done to bring this area back?

INSLEE: So we're focusing on two things for economic recovery. One, the first job is to get this vital highway, this arterial - an artery for the economy of the region restored. And obviously, we're doing this in the most sensitive way possible to the fact that families were still missing people so that's complicated the effort, but we now are in a position where we can really start this in a very sensitive way to restore that road.

But secondly, we're going to need to help rebuild these businesses. We have had additional costs associated with fuel costs for a mill which is a large employer in Darrington. We think we have - we're not sure, but we think we have a way to help them with some of their transportation costs they've had of having to go the long route to this town.

BLOCK: You talked about the sensitivity and I imagine that's a hard balance to find and encouraging people to come back, but also respecting what happened and mourning what happened.

INSLEE: Well, I think that it is and it's a transition. We've had overwhelming grief now for a month, but we also have people who recognize that they want their communities to thrive and I'm confident in the fullness of time this community will rebound. And it started, oh, I don't know about 10 days ago, when we had the first baseball game. Darrington played their first baseball game and won seven to two.

Of course, it was in the rain, but their spirits were undampened. And I think it was a sign of what's going to come, which is a resilient community that is going to rebound, is going to rebuild and the Oso strong that you've heard about is going to be fulfilled.

BLOCK: So you think Oso itself, this tiny town that was completely wiped out by this mudslide, that it will rebuild where it was?

INSLEE: I think there is serious question, I would say real doubt that it would be where it was because we still have this landslide sitting in some places 75 feet deep in a rerouted river with some hydrological concerns. So it's doubtful it's going to be in the exact location, but we are intent on helping this community remain a community. I've already talked to the fire department there to try to figure out how we're going to maintain their structure, having lost much of their current tax base. And I think we will succeed. It is the spirit of the place. It's the nature of the place and it's the future of the place.

BLOCK: Well, Governor Inslee, thanks for being with us today. We appreciate it.

INSLEE: Thank you very much. And, again, thanks for everyone across the country who are helping out here.

BLOCK: That's Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state.

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