News agencies in the Pacific Northwest have gone full bore with coverage in the week following the massive landslide in Washington's Snohomish County where a steep canyon wall, one that has suffered many slides in the past, suddenly surrendered again to gravity in a colossal avalanche. It surged across the Stillaguamish River, splintering trees on both sides. Like a thousand runaway locomotives it obliterated much of a rural community, ripping homes to pieces. As least 18 bodies have been recovered and about 30 people are missing. The river has backed up while it makes a new bed hundreds of feet from where it was.
The region's largest newspaper, the Seattle Times, has risen far above the norm. I've not done a survey of media coverage but would be surprised if anybody surpassed the Times's breadth and speedy response. About three dozen reporters plus illustrators and others have been working long hours to get the facts. The all-staff assault paid off fast. Almost as soon as a top local official described it as an unpredicted and unpredictable surprise of nature, the Times's crew debunked that up one side and down the other. Geologists, some of them local residents themselves, had been documenting and reporting to public agencies for decades that precisely this mountainside (as does many another canyonside in the state) posed a severe hazard to anybody living beneath it.
Other agencies have largely been playing catch-up. A selection from the Times's coverage follows below. But first consider this passage – taken from a summation the Times did on its own coverage. Here is what happened when one of its reporters interviewed a geologist who, with his wife also a geologist, for years had been almost obsessively collecting data on the deadly slope:
Monday afternoon, Dan Miller received a call from a Seattle Times reporter, asking about Miller’s 1999 report. They met in Miller’s office — on the top floor of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard — and went through his research.
The paper posted a story that night about Miller’s warnings. Within minutes Miller’s phone began to ring. Tuesday morning camera crews affiliated with ABC, CBS and NBC showed up at the church. “It was pretty crowded in there,” Lynne Rodgers Miller says.
It was too late, but now everyone wanted to hear what he had to say.
In the days to come Miller would talk to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and The Associated Press. He’d go on air with the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Al-Jazeera America and Radio New Zealand. He’d be interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Greta Van Susteren and Rachel Maddow. Even The Weather Channel called.
Miller revisited his slide presentation from 2006, then emailed a reporter: “Clearly, we need to find ways to better communicate this type of information to government planners and regulators, and to the public, and to do so in ways that are clear and understandable.”
A few days after the slide, Miller received a call from someone who had been at his community presentation in 2006. The caller recounted how a man had stood in the back of the room and told Miller: “You’re trying to take our land.”
Selected Seattle Times stories (with a thank you to reader and NY City science writer Jonathan Beard, who suggested that the tracker take a look at the Seattle paper's work):
- Ken Armstrong, Mike Carter, Mike Baker, March 24: Risk of slide 'unforeseen'? Warnings go back decades/ While a Snohomish County official said the area hit by the mudslide "was considered very safe," the hillside's history of slides dates back more than 60 years. One expert says he was shocked when homebuilding was permitted after a big 2006 slide. A compelling, well orgaqnized report. It goes fast through the multiple times that experts had seen, and reported to public agencies, the hazards. Then it quotes this from the local emergency services chief: "It was considered very safe. This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere." Story is accompanied by terrific interactive graphic screenshot at top of post). It is a map of the small community that the landlide struck, progressively overlaid by the monster landslide debris field.
- Sandi Doughton, science writer, Mar 27 : Laser maps reveal slide risk with startling clarity, but few citizens know they exist / and aerial scanning technique called lidar produces images that strip away vegetation to expose the landforms below. Some counties use them to ID hazardous areas, but others don't ; Technology exists to vastly improve risk assessments if only the budget and the will were there. One thinks, in a quibble, Doughton ought to have explained (perhaps I missed it) that lidar with its pulsed lasers not only works like radio-based radar but its name has parallel etiology: LIght Detection And Ranging. Otherwise, aces.
- Jim Brunner, Michael J. Berens (Mar 25) County's own 2010 report called slide area dangerous / The report is the latest evidence that contradicts a Snohomish Country emergency management official who claimed the area "was very safe."
- Staff – more than 30 names credited – Mar 29: Mudslide survivors, rescuers tell their stories of tragic day ; Mesmerizing and well-told tales of horror and heroism. Has considerable more detail on the two-geologist couple who more than any foresaw the dangers and how the news hit them when their fears came to pass.
- Landslide risk map : pdf of State Dept of Natural Resources chart of landslide risk areas in the affected county. The area of the big slide is plain to see – but even plainer to see are the many, even larger areas similarly designated in red.
The coverage, as it often does following a natural catastrophe, comes with the horse gone from the barn. One might ask why the geologists didn't do more to warn residents? How much coverage did the Times or other media give in years past to abstract landslide dangers? For that matter, a question to pursue is whether geologists and officials did want to try harder to keep people from living in harm's way but property owner and real estate developer pressure stymied it. The troubling court conviction in Italy a few years ago of seven geologists who officials said should have warned of a coming quake comes to mind at times like this.
But one offers that until they are confronted with terror communities do not tend to put high priority on avoiding it. And even after a hard lesson they may not adapt. Homes are going up again on lots swept clear by Hurricane Sandy. New Orleans officials vow not to cede any significant part of town in order to reduce death and destruction during the flood and storm surge next time. And here in California, with media and officials delivering a steady diet of earthquake warnings and advice, an awful lot of residents don't even bolt their tall shelving units to walls, brace brick chimneys, or store some water and other necessities in case the big one leaves them cut off. Hazard maps are hard enough. Action is harder.
Sampling of coverage from other outlets:
- AP – Phuong Le, Gosia Wozniacka: No national system to track landslide hazards ;
- Washington Post – Darryl Fears: Before the Washington mudslide, warnings of the unthinkable ;
- Portland Oregonian – Lynne Terry: Landslide danger: Geologists say Oregon is vulnerable ;
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