Skip to main content

Deadly mudslide, a disaster that didn't have to happen

By Daniel Miller
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
A rescue dog and its handlers work the site of a catastrophic landslide near Darrington, Washington, on Saturday, March 29. A week earlier, a landslide crossed the North Fork of the nearby Stillaguamish River, causing multiple deaths and massive damage to homes. A rescue dog and its handlers work the site of a catastrophic landslide near Darrington, Washington, on Saturday, March 29. A week earlier, a landslide crossed the North Fork of the nearby Stillaguamish River, causing multiple deaths and massive damage to homes.
HIDE CAPTION
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
Devastating landslide in Washington state
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Miller predicted possible catastrophic mudslide in Washington 15 years ago
  • Miller: Engineers tried to shore up site and offered to buy out homeowners in danger
  • Miller: Despite warnings, construction went on; some didn't realize there was a risk
  • He says assessments of danger should be readily available to potential homeowners

Editor's note: Daniel Miller is the co-owner of M2 Environmental Services and co-founder of Earth Systems Institute and TerrainWorks. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN) -- I am a geomorphologist: a scientist fascinated by the interactions of storms, floods, fires and landslides. We humans may feel a bit above that fray -- we refer to the "natural environment" as though it were a separate thing. Yet, as a landslide near Oso, Washington, tragically highlighted on Saturday, we remain subject to the forces of nature like all the rest of Earth's creatures.

At the latest count, 27 people are confirmed dead and 22 are still missing. A painful part of the natural order of things.

Daniel Miller
Daniel Miller

Unlike those other inhabitants of Earth, however, we know something of how things work. This, too, was highlighted last week, when the Seattle Times reported on a study I did 15 years ago, one of many for the Hazel site, which had experienced recurring landslides. In that study, conducted for the Army Corps of Engineers, I had written of the possibility of a "large catastrophic failure" based on numerical analyses that indicated potential instability of a huge mass of material above the zone of previous landslides. As a scientist, I knew that material would someday be on the valley floor.

As intended, that report guided further work. Tracy Drury, an engineer who reported on the site for the Army Corps of Engineers, was also clear that "catastrophic failure potential places human lives and property at risk." He came up with designs to shore up the slope. Those designs were put in place; everything was done that could be done to minimize the potential of a future landslide.

A pleasant rural neighborhood, Steelhead Haven, sat directly across the river from the site. Drury's most relevant design to protect lives was to try to buy up the properties and move people away. There were meetings to discuss these ideas, but nothing came of them.

I wasn't involved in the discussions, but I did attend a community meeting to discuss my analyses -- after a landslide in 2006 felled trees and crashed into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River across the valley into the edge of Steelhead Haven. One response to my presentation, I was told, was that I was there to take their land.

Construction of new homes continued, even after 2006. In some cases, people were informed of the risk, but didn't trust the messenger, or decided it was an acceptable risk. I learned that some people were unaware that they lived across the river from an active landslide.

Revised number of missing in Washington
Response to landslide is 'very humbling'
Family finds dog amid landslide rubble

I've been asked, "Where does responsibility lie?" The cast is large. Homeowners choose to live in beautiful, but dangerous, places. Contractors and developers then build those homes, Realtors sell them, bankers finance them, local officials grant permits, governments set zoning rules, and voters elect the officials who make those rules.

At every step, those decisions need to be made from positions of knowledge and understanding of the potential consequences. Then who is responsible to ensure that scientific findings are disseminated and clearly understood? The scientists? The government? The media?

We cannot help those lost at Oso, but we can look to do better in the future. This is not the last landslide, flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, drought, tornado, or any of a long list of threatening events that we face. Scientists work hard to understand these processes; we need to ensure that everyone makes decisions fully aware of the potential consequences of their actions.

We have work to do. I'm getting calls from concerned homeowners wanting to know where to get information. It's not easy to find. Landslide hazards have not been systematically mapped across the state, much less the country. Where work has been done, maps are hard to find. If found, they are difficult to interpret.

Many local, state and federal agencies are working to improve this situation, but progress is slow and funding is tight. Mapping hazards is not a national priority. Yet it seems that, if my smartphone can tell me how to drive to the nearest coffee shop, it should be able to tell me what's known about the hazards where I'm standing. We have the technology; we need the public interest to drive the required investment.

Like most scientists, I toil in obscurity to make my small contribution. Maybe we scientists are missing the point. The problem with toiling in obscurity is that no one hears us. We need better special effects. Getting our messages across can save lives, although it will involve getting houses off flood plains, coastal bluffs and debris-flow fans. In general, folks don't appreciate having a scientist, or government official, suggest they move. Perhaps there is another approach. It took a massive information campaign to dramatically cut consumption of cancer-causing cigarettes, surely we can motivate people to examine the facts in this case and do things that are ultimately good for all of us.

In 1997, a colleague and I co-founded a small not-for-profit institute seeking to provide land managers with the data and tools they need to make informed decisions. We both had young children; we saw it as a way to help ensure their generation would have something worth managing. That's gone well, but our targeted audience is too small and public funding too limited. To really change things, everyone should have the tools and data to make informed decisions, and use them.

For that to happen, these tools need to be as cool and easy to use as the latest smartphone app; lives depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT