Islanders join in effort at Oso slide

Following one of the deadliest natural disasters in state history, several Vashon residents have joined in the large response effort at the Oso landslide.

These islanders have volunteered their time or worked at the site and incident command posts in the area, doing everything from providing information to the media to monitoring the slide stability and river flow.

Rick Wallace of VashonBePrepared is one of the volunteers. Due to his experience and qualifications, he was asked to act as the deputy chief of logistics at the Snohomish County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is coordinating the slide response. He went up on Sunday and will be there for a week.

“It’s an honor to be recognized as unpaid volunteers, and it shows that Vashon knows what it’s doing,” he said.

Wallace, who has held a leadership position with Vashon’s EOC for 10 years, also has incident command training through federal courses he took on emergency management.

Wallace explained that the emergency operations center is responsible for synthesizing information, coordinating activities and supporting the field operations. He won’t be working at the landslide site, he said, but helping support those who are.

“We get the field workers what they need

to keep doing what they’re doing,” he said. “If they need food, more personnel, a place to sleep or 1,000 sheets of plywood, we make sure that happens and that things get to the right people or places.”

Islander Shelby Edwards knows all about this, both from her past professional experience as well as having just spent a week working as a staff volunteer at the Snohomish County EOC herself. Edwards, a former army reservist and experienced crisis management and disaster preparedness consultant, led Nike’s response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“Logistics is 1,001 details,” she said. “It’s where everything comes together, coordinating requests from the field and planning for the next steps.”

Noting the number of islanders that are involved in the Oso volunteer effort, Edwards remarked, “Vashon is unique in the number of registered emergency workers we have with the county — you need extra training for that. It’s a real testament to this island’s dedicated and skilled volunteers.”

Given the scope of the Oso disaster and the subsequent response, a call for volunteers with specific skills went out to EOCs throughout the region, including Vashon’s EOC, which is managed by Vashon Island Fire & Rescue.

“There are so many people who would like to go,” said Catherine Cochrane, co-manager of Vashon’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a group of local volunteers trained in basic response skills. Cochrane noted that while the call for volunteers went to the EOC and not CERT, she knew  that some CERT members had the specialized skills that the Snohomish County EOC was looking for, and she reached out to them specifically.

Islanders interested in volunteering submitted a questionnaire regarding their experience and qualifications, and a half-dozen or so were chosen to help.

But Vashon’s presence at Oso isn’t limited to its passionate volunteers.

Karen Ripley, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources as a forest health manager, worked there as a member of one of Washington’s five Interagency Incident Management Teams. These teams primarily respond to large wildfires, but have also responded to out-of-state disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Challenger shuttle accident.

Ripley is an incident information officer and a member of the command staff of one of the teams, which was requested by the state to oversee the Oso response and recovery operations.

“We usually deal with wildfires, and I’ve been to huge ones,” she said, “but I’ve never had to work with FEMA or search and rescue teams before. The pace was very different.”

As an information officer, Ripley was responsible for providing information to the news media, elected officials, the local community and response personnel. She also made sure that the media had safe access to the area and set up community bulletin boards and meetings.

Ripley said the experience was emotional at times, and she was touched by what she saw in Oso.

“This became a very personal commitment from the team to the people of Darrington,” she said. “The community knew everyone. The missing people, they knew their names. They (community volunteers) were allowed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the pros out in the field and when someone was found, it was somber and very respectful. They knew who they were. It made it very personal for everyone.”

Ripley’s team, which works on two-week assignments, was relieved by another at the end of last week.

Another islander whose job involved her in the slide response is Marijke Van Heeswijk, a hydrologist and assistant director of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) stream gauging program in Washington.

Senator Maria Cantwell’s office contacted the USGS the day after the slide, and Van Heeswijk is now coordinating the agency’s response. The USGS, Van Heeswijk said, is constantly monitoring the slide and river conditions. It has provided air and ground surveillance data to the incident command posts and has coordinated with experts around the country to provide scientific and technical support.

The USGS has also installed stream gauges in the river to monitor both water levels and erosion of the stream bed, as well as a landslide monitoring system.

Initially there was concern that the water backing up in the river behind the slide debris could break through suddenly and cause more damage. As the river is now carving itself a new path around the slide, that particular issue is less of a worry, but Van Heeswijk explained that concerns remain.

“We still have to watch what the river is doing; it could destabilize another area with a new path. We have to make assessments for future impact,” she said.

At least three other islanders have worked in Snohomish as well. Local acupuncturist Eli Stahl spent a day at the site offering stress-relieving treatments as part of the group Acupuncturists Without Borders. Terri Vickers, a public information officer for the Renton Police Department, and Leslie Brown, a communications specialist for the King County Department of Public Defense, were both contacted through their employers after Snohomish County requested mutual aid and spent a few days working with the media at the site.

Van Heeswijk noted that the collaboration of all the agencies involved in the slide response has been impressive.

“It’s been heartwarming,” she said. “It has really brought people together both in the community as well as those working to help.”


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