Scientist warned of 'catastrophic' Wash. landslide in 1999


Fox News:

Scientist warned of ‘catastrophic’ Wash. landslide in 1999

ARLINGTON, WASH. – A scientist working for the government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the fishing village where the weekend collapse of a rain-soaked hillside killed at least 16 people and left scores missing.

As rescue workers slogged through the muck and rain in search of victims Tuesday, word of the 1999 report raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether officials had taken proper precautions.

“I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event,” said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Seattle, said it appears that the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.

Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said, “We don’t have jurisdiction to do anything. We don’t do zoning. That’s a local responsibility.”

Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated village of Oso said that they were not aware of the study but that residents and town officials knew the risks of living in the area.


According to the news article, the area has long been known as the “Hazel Landslide” because of landslides over the past half-century. The last severe one before Saturday’s disaster was in 2006.

Really, this disaster isn’t surprising. Smaller versions happen every year in California, and for the same reason. The rainy season is in the winter, and during this time the ground will become saturated and heavy. If the vegetation has been stripped away, and tree roots are no longer there to hold the soil in place, eventually the soil on a hillside will follow gravity to the bottom of the hill.

Such landslides may not happen like clockwork, but their eventuality is thoroughly predictable. The same is true of building on the flood plain of a river or building on the coast of a hurricane zone, or building on top of a seismic fault. Minor disasters happen infrequently, but eventually “The Big One” will occur. It simply is a matter of time.


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