The address on the driver’s license made it pretty clear: the home of the woman pictured no longer existed.
I’d volunteered to spend a day at the Oso slide area working on what was called “property reunification” – essentially bagging and tagging items that the search and rescue crews had recovered and identified as potentially valuable in the hopes their owners – or surviving family members – would be able to identify and claim their belongings. Even though no radio work was involved, having been previously vetted when I joined my emergency communications group allowed me to volunteer to work at the site.
We were set up within a few hundred yards of the slide itself. Ahead of us three large excavators were carefully digging in the mud, reportedly some 30 to 70 feet high in places, to clear a path for drainage and more heavy machinery as well as for the search and rescue workers themselves. (Unfortunately photographs were discouraged, so I took very few and won’t be sharing them here. From a local news station this is a good collection, and in particular this photo of a recovered American flag which hung at our work station. This photo best represents our view throughout the day.)
Just two weeks after the massive slide happened what was originally a rescue mission had of necessity turned into a recovery operation. The massive mudslide had crossed a river and a highway to quite literally wipe homes off the map, and sadly many lives with them. (This interactive map is among the best for understanding the sheer magnitude of what happened.)
Our work was slow. For most of the day very little had been brought to us from the cleaning station. Unfortunately the mudslide had churned up more than just homes and property, but septic systems as well. Both workers and recovered property had to be thoroughly cleaned before leaving the area.
While we spent most of the day watching, there was a steady stream of rescue and relief workers walking or driving by our position. At least a couple dozen different local fire and police jurisdictions had sent men and equipment, to be joined by FEMA, the National Guard, various search-and-rescue organizations and others. Some came from as far away as California and Colorado. I’d estimate that there were at least 150 people or more on site.
Much of the so-called “real” activity was beyond our view. Down the road we could see excavators pulling logs as well as what had obviously been pieces of structures from the mud that covered the road. Every so often it appeared that a ditch that they were maintaining to drain the area would need to be dug out a little more as silt and debris collected in the stream. Further up the hillside search dogs and their handlers were apparently covering the newly drained area.
Mid afternoon we started getting some property to catalog. A baseball card in a plastic case. Collectible coins. Baby toys. A signed football.
And photos. Hundreds and hundreds of water-logged photos. Some in plastic bags, some sandwiched by the recovery and cleaning crews in absorbent papers. Photos of families, children, pets. While there were certainly items recovered to which you could assign a monetary value there was nothing as potentially personally valuable as otherwise irreplaceable photographs.
And then there was the bag containing the contents of a purse that the rescue crews had unearthed.
Cash (all carefully counted, re-counted, and bagged by the sheriff that we were working with), a driver’s license, a social security card, and the normal collection of credit cards, loyalty cards and similar. We laid them all out in an effort to dry them off a little more before placing them in collection bags.
And more photos. A collection of photos that were clearly meaningful to the purse’s owner.
I couldn’t help but look at the driver’s license. An uncharacteristically good DMV photo looked back. With an address in the disaster zone it was clear that this person’s home no longer existed – it was almost directly in the landslide’s path. And even though we suspected it at the time, it wasn’t until I got home later that I was able to confirm that she was, indeed, on the publicly released casualty list.
I can only hope that the recovery of her personal items will somehow help the family and loved ones she left behind.
While it’s difficult to describe, one of the other things that stood out for me throughout the day was what I can only call “camaraderie”. As I mentioned there were volunteers and workers from all over – both local and national in origin – passing by our location throughout the day. There was a casual acceptance, frequently acknowledged with a head nod or simple wave to and from those passing by, that felt like tacit acknowledgement that we were all there as part of something larger than ourselves.
“Thank you” was a refrain heard often.
One of the highlights of the day was clearly the arrival of The Soup Ladies. They’ve been providing hot meals for the folks on the ground at Oso. It was very cool to watch the reaction to their arrival; it was clear that the service that they provide is very much appreciated by everyone there. I hadn’t planned on lunch but when one was offered I accepted and I can honestly say that their reputation is very well deserved. It was delicious.
When I drove to the site in the morning my attention was, primarily, on simply navigating to an area I’d never visited before. Even so I noticed the various “Oso Strong” signs as well as other signs – commercial as well as hand-made – expressing support for the community and the people who’d come to help. It wasn’t until later in the day when I was driving out of the area I noticed the yellow ribbons on bushes, trees, bridges and elsewhere, once again silently and subtly expressing both gratitude and hope.
My role was minuscule, but I’m very grateful I was allowed to be present. I have a much greater appreciation for the sheer magnitude of the event, as well as the magnitude of the response. I have a greater appreciation for the strength of a community coming together to help its own, as well as the larger emergency response community coming together to help people they’d never known.