Everett’s trusty emergency management skills put to test at Oso
EVERETT — When a mudslide devastated Oso earlier this year, the land moved in a way that bulldozed the homes in the area, pushing demolished structures out in front of the slide.
Though this made the wreckage more apparent, in some ways, it actually helped the rescue effort. The slide killed 43 people, most of whose bodies were recovered within the first four weeks.
“Had the mud buried homes in the area, we would never have been able to dig it all out,” Everett’s emergency management director Dave DeHaan
said. “It was over 70 feet deep at places.”
People look over a bridge at the receding Stillaguamish River days after the March 22 Oso disaster
Some planning is helpful in an emergency, but it is impossible to cookie cut a plan for a disaster. The emergency management division of the Fire Department has a basic emergency plan with smaller supplemental plans that can be implemented as appropriate.
“We will never see the disaster that we plan for,” DeHaan said.
In the case of the Oso mudslide, citizen involvement was key in rescuing those trapped in their homes. Although DeHaan said that the exact number is unclear, approximately 90 percent of the people rescued from debris were rescued by everyday people.
DeHaan recalled one story of a boy who used two pallets to cross the mud, which had a texture similar to quicksand or Jell-O in some places. The boy would lay one pallet down, then flip the other pallet in front and climb onto it before repeating the process with the first pallet. He made it out to a person trapped in the mud and was able to shield them from the whirlwind created by a helicopter overhead. The boy also helped rescuers put a sling on the trapped person so they could be pulled to safety.
“We have always said that people that are there will make a difference, but I don’t think we believed it until some of these major incidents,” DeHaan said, referencing the Oso mudslide, Hurricane Katrina and other major natural disasters where neighbors made an impact in rescue efforts.
“There was example after example in the Oso area of neighbors checking in on each other and neighbors passing information to each other,” Mary Schoenfeldt, public education coordinator for emergency management, said. “That neighbor-to-neighbor contact was very evident and very important.”
Many of the neighbors involved in Oso mudslide rescues had access to tools, such as long lumber saws, that would have taken much longer for fire personnel to get. Rather than go through a bureaucratic request for tools from other fire departments, neighbors would just pull the tools out of their garages.
“This made rescue efforts more efficient,” DeHaan said. “Neighbors are a huge part of the equation in surviving a disaster.”
There are concerns when a large number of citizens become involved in rescue efforts, however.
“We have an old saying: ‘A fire truck doesn’t bring victims to a fire,’” DeHaan said. “Likewise, we don’t want our citizen responders to become victims.”
There were also concerns over the mental and emotional health of volunteers, especially since they likely knew the people they were searching for, rescuing and recovering.
Response efforts in the Oso disaster
Schoenfeldt worked as both a professional and a volunteer in the Oso mudslide and has volunteered to offer emotional support in other disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina.
“Some of the things that were put in place immediately were for emotional support,” she said. “I’ve never seen that combination of compassion and expertise come into play quite so quickly. I think that’s a part of why the response went as well as it did.”
Emergency management says there are some actions you can take to prepare for when a disaster may strike. A 72-hour kit that includes clothes, non-perishable food and water is a good starting point.
Registering for a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) class could provide some basic education for how to help yourself and others in a disaster. Neighborhoods are also encouraged to participate in a project called Map Your Neighborhood, which allows residents to learn about their area and establish community meeting centers.
Sign up for a CERT class
So far, more than 510 people have taken CERT classes in Everett. The class, given in eight sessions, covers disaster planning and basic survival skills. Classes are free, but participants are required to create a 72-hour emergency kit and buy their own personal safety equipment which costs about $30. Participants must attend all eight sessions. To apply or for more information on the next set of CERT classes, call the Everett Office of Emergency Management at 425-257-7965 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.