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article imageUS landslide towns divided by mud, united by grief

By Michael Thurston (AFP)     Mar 31, 2014 in World

"We're still in shock, really," says Ben Sullivan.

As the likely death toll from the monster landslide in the picture postcard valley town of Oso climbs into the dozens, that's a common feeling round here, more than a week after the catastrophe.

"We all know someone who died, or is still missing," added Sullivan, who ran a bake sale Sunday with his sister Bea next in nearby Arlington, to raise funds for families of the victims.

Heart-wrenching stories of victims and survivors of the massive mudslide have emerged.

One of the most tragic is that of Natasha Huestis, whose mother four-month-old daughter Sanoah died at home while she was out.

"I wanted to be a good mom, like my mom," the 26-year-old told the local Herald newspaper at the weekend.

Pointing to a photo of her baby, she said: "Isn't she beautiful? She was just learning to roll. And she was teething, so we were waiting for her first tooth."

Ironically, while the tragedy -- one of the most deadly landslides in US history -- has united the community in grief, it has also physically divided folk in the valley from the two towns either side of it.

At the IGA grocery store in Darrington  Washington  Brandon Williams (L) and Chris Dungan look at a ...
At the IGA grocery store in Darrington, Washington, Brandon Williams (L) and Chris Dungan look at a map of the devastated nearby community of Oso, March 25, 2014
Paul Joseph Brown, AFP/File

That is because the vast slab of rain-soaked hillside crashed down on the main road between Arlington to the west and Darrington to the east, making it impassable since the March 22 disaster.

Before the landslide the trip was an easy 30 minutes on state route 530. Now the trip takes up to two hours around smaller roads meandering into the Cascade Mountains.

Darrington, set amid snow-capped peaks and surrounded by the forests which supply the region's logging industry, is an extra hour at least from Seattle, 60 miles (95 kilometers) to the south.

"We all have family and friends in Oso and down in Arlington," said Pam, who would only give her first name, after shopping at the nearby Darrington IGA grocery store, next to the town's fire house.

Before the landslide, when Darrington people popped down the less mountainous Arlington, they talked about "going down there" or "going down below."

Blayne Parris, whose family has run the Blue Bird Cafe in Arlington's main streat for generations, said of his Darrington friends: "It's not coming down anymore, it's going around."

The road to Oso from either Arlington or Darrington ends at roadblocks a mile or two before the mudslide area itself. Only workers heading for the "pile," as it is known, are allowed through.

Yellow ribbons flutter in the breeze, tied around trees and hedges along Route 530, which locals have used as their name for the landslide: the 530-slide.

Residents gather trying to get access to their families after a massive landslide at the fire statio...
Residents gather trying to get access to their families after a massive landslide at the fire station in Oso, Washington, on March 24, 2014
Paul Joseph Brown, AFP/File

A short distance before the Arlington end of the blocked-off area stands the Oso Community Chapel, where workers are busy loading water and foodstuffs into vans and cars to take to families in need.

Jerry Graber, the chapel's board president, said they had raised $20,000 since the catastrophe. One of his church's young members was among the 30 people still missing.

"We are a strong community. Everybody helps out in a crisis like this," he told AFP.

The community may be strong, but the local economy has struggled. Tourism and logging provide crucial income in the region, close enough to the US border that you can pick up Canadian radio.

"It could devastate it," said Bea Sullivan, packing up her baked-goods stall after a day of fund-raising with her brother on the green at the end of Arlington's main street.

"It hasn't been doing very well, even before this happened," added Graber.

At the Blue Bird Cafe, the front window is filled with a tied yellow ribbon with "Darrington" on one side, "Arlington" on the other, and "Oso" in the middle, under the slogan "Hold on to Hope."

Inside, its burly manager said that is becoming increasingly difficult, and most people acknowledge only bodies will now be found.

"I wouldn't say they've given up hope," said Parris, but added: "It's been more than a week now, the toll keeps going up, everybody knows in the back of their mind thats now recovery and not rescue.

The official death toll stood at 24 on Monday. But the actual death toll is likely to be at least 30 and could be much higher.

One recovery operations manager, Steve Harris, said Monday that four to six bodies were being recovered every day.

He also acknowledged that, because of the sheer force of the landslide, bodies were not always intact.

"It's very difficult, in some of the finds that they're making, to make identification," he said.

"You had whole-sized cars compacted down to the size of a refrigerator .. there was just an incredible amount of energy as the material came down."

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