Oso Strong—God’s Love Endures

Waiting for the pilot car. Oso mudslide visible in the distance. Undamaged home in trees at right.

South edge of the slide. Temporary road followed power line beyond.

Broken trees, broken hillside, broken hearts at Oso.

The Steelhead Haven neighborhood after the slide

Surreal…what else could one call it?

A piece of corrugated drain pipe protruding skyward from heaped gravel on our right; a broken board, the shredded bole of a tree…all the same gray. Such an expanse of dullness, stretching across the once green and lovely valley to where a hill called Hazel had broken open like some monstrous overripe fruit.

A mile of Washington State Highway 530, buried since the hill’s collapse on March 23, 2014, opened again to single-lane traffic on Sunday, May 31. Survivors, volunteers, friends and neighbors solemnly walked the route with Governor Jay Inslee. Only a few days earlier, big shovels were still clearing rubble. Volunteers searched as they dug for families‘ keepsakes and for the remains of people still missing.

On Monday, we followed a pilot car leading log trucks, commercial vehicles, locals, and tourists through the slide area. After a short line of westbound traffic had passed, our line slowly moved uphill, through familiar country. This area between Oso and Darrington has always been one of our favorite drives. On the hill to our right sat a modest home with a fringe of trees to the east…and nothing but gray rubble beyond.

We drove in overwhelmed silence. A mile to the left, the raw interior of the mountain exposed layers of gravel and other sediments laid down during the glacial age. The rest of the mountain, supersaturated by weeks of heavy rain, had turned to mud and slurry in the blink of an eye. It rolled and roared with the sound of a freight train across the forests and the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. It smashed homes and swept away the rubble, burying the Stillaguamish River, backing it up to flood homes spared by the wicked mixture of rock, mud, and broken trees.  It covered vehicles and people on the very roadway on which we now drove. Its energy finally ran out on the opposite hillside.

My mind couldn’t encompass the expanse of gray ruin, focusing instead on two spots of color…a blue plastic container, a red jug. A lone fir stood near the road, still green: the Oso Memorial Tree. On it someone had fastened a sign with the date and time of the slide: 10:45 AM, 3/23/14, lovingly crafted from a board found in the wreckage. On the far side a couple of homes stood in a sea of dirt that might have been left by the backed-up river. Then we were back in Washington’s green jungle of brush and trees. Where we glimpsed the river above the slide, it looked its normal color, not gray with the mud it picks up as it chews its way through the slide.

As traffic sped up, I realized my mind was playing the song we sang at church the day before: “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell; it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell….When hoary time shall pass away, and earthly thrones and kingdoms fall, when men who here refuse to pray on rocks and hills and mountains call, God’s love so sure, shall still endure, all measureless and strong, redeeming grace to Adam’s race—the saints’ and angels’ song.”

Hell had visited the Steelhead Haven neighborhood, but God’s love was there, too. It was in the love of friends and neighbors who refused to obey orders to stay away and put their own lives in danger to rescue the few still living and to keep on looking for the missing. It was there in the love of hundreds of volunteers who found ways to help, and in the generous sharing of people all over the country who gave to assist those who’d lost everything.

 “Oso Strong” became the slogan that encouraged and drew people together. I’m proud of neighbors near and far who worked together to help shoulder the burdens of those most affected. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country whose strength lies in people like this.

The Memorial Tree, photographed in passing

Flaggers at the eastern edge of the work zone

This home narrowly escaped destruction.