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Landslide Dangers Abound In Whatcom County, Wash.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Search crews working in Oso, Wash., north of Seattle, have now found 24 bodies at the site of Saturday's massive landslide. As the efforts there settle into a grim routine, local officials face questions about why so many people lived in such a hazardous area.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.


MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's a nightmarish scene: a square mile of mud, broken trees, and the splintered remains of people's homes. Steve Mason is with the state's Incident Management Team. He points out searchers who are working their way through the debris with chainsaws.

STEVE MASON: There are finds going on continually. So they're down there finding people now.

KASTE: Looking at this, you can't help but wonder: Could this have been predicted? Should it have been? Dan McShane is an engineering geologist in Bellingham, Wash.

DAN MCSHANE: There was a fair bit of certainty that this was going to be a really bad landslide someday.

KASTE: There had been landslides in Oso before, most recently in 2006; and geological reports warned of the danger. McShane says state law often lets permit holders keep their development rights even after hazards crop up. And the situation is even tougher if a community has already been built there.

MCSHANE: You already have a bunch of houses in a certain spot. How do you deal with that when you start becoming aware, as a local government, of how horrible a risk might be?

KASTE: McShane knows all about this. He spent eight years in local government, on the council in Whatcom. That's the county north of the Oso landslide. And if you ask him if he can think of another place under geological threat, he suggests Acme.

BATTALION CHIEF FRANK HATHAWAY: I'm Frank Hathaway. I'm battalion chief of the fire district here.

KASTE: Acme is tiny. It's about 200 people in the foothills of the North Cascades. Hathaway stands outside the firehouse and points at the looming ridge.

HATHAWAY: If we have a blowout, it's going to come down, and it's going to end up coming right straight down through town here, if it's big enough.

KASTE: The threat in Acme is a little different than in Oso. What they're worried about here are the landslides higher up, which can plug the creek that runs through town. Bob Knutson is a local who helped to bring in some experts to measure the threat.

BOB KNUTSON: If that thing got big enough and it blew out, that's what, maybe two minutes between the time it leaves up there and it's down here.

KASTE: It's been water? Just water?

KNUTSON: No, debris. Debris flow, and there's big trees. There's rocks. There's a backup in there. There's a rock - couple, three rocks that are probably, they're bigger than your car and are round as bowling balls.

KASTE: And they'd be headed straight at houses or the local school. Similar dam bursts in the past left layers of dirt and rubble five feet thick. Acme's built on those layers. And in these mountains, geology is destiny.

KNUTSON: It's going to do it again. It's done it forever, and it'll do it again. It's just a matter of when.

KASTE: But now here is where Acme is a little different from some other places. Knutson wanted to know the real danger, and he wanted to do something about it. He and others here pressured the county to act.


KASTE: And one of the results is the new sensor installed on the creek. It automatically calls the fire department if the water level drops quickly, sign of a landslide upstream. Assistant fire chief Hank Maleng says this sensor would not be here if the locals hadn't asked questions about the hidden risks in their community.

HANK MALENG: You, as a community, should look out for yourself. You shouldn't always depend upon the government to come in and say that this is the way everything should be, because they can't watch this all the time.

KASTE: It's a lesson to keep in mind, especially here in the West, where property rights are fiercely defended and government often defers to the locals and their own judgment of how much risk they can live with.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.