Year after mudslide, Oso resident says she would never leave: ‘It’s my home’

DARRINGTON, Wash. -- Two days after a massive mudslide wiped out a small community near Oso, the site looked apocalyptic.

It was Monday, March 24, 2014, and the debris zone was eerily quiet. Fog drifted over mountains of mud and concrete and snaked through crumpled cars and demolished homes. The piles of debris were so massive that the task of removing them seemed insurmountable.

Nearly one year later, the site looks much different than it did on that day.

The debris is gone, except for small remnants of wood and cement stuck firmly into the ground. Highway 530 and the Stillaguamish River, both completely covered by the slide, are now cleared. An open field, where helicopters landed to carry away bodies of the deceased, is now dotted with bright yellow daffodils.

“I get some peace coming out here and planting flowers, tending to Linda’s apple trees,” said Elaine Young, whose home was one of only a few left standing after a massive slide swept through her neighborhood on March 22, 2014.

Among the 43 people killed was Young's 69-year-old neighborhood, Linda McPherson, whose apple trees Elaine has begun to care for.

Elaine is among those who live with the aftermath of the Oso mudslide every day. She lives just steps from one of the hardest hit areas and has watched the landscape transform.

“People come to see the slide zone. People come and pass the slide zone. I tell them, ‘Yes, but I live in the slide zone every day,'” she said, walking alongside her dog, Bo, on a sunny day earlier this month.

She got the idea to plant yellow daffodils after finding some in the debris after the slide.

“That Sunday and that Monday, I just would grab daffodils and would lay them down in the mud,” she said.

She has since planted them along Highway 530 and in places where the remains of her neighbors were found – a sign of life, in a place where so many lives were lost.

“They’ll come back every year,” she said. “Every year on the anniversary.”

Elaine said she would like to see the slide zone left as it is, but hopes the county will set up some sort of long-term memorial for passersby to pull off the highway and pay tribute to those who were lost.

Heather Kelly, who was appointed the long-term recovery lead for Snohomish County, said she is working with the families of those who lost loved ones to discuss a commemorative memorial. In the meantime, she said, the county is trying to let the land return to its natural state.

“We’ve been letting nature kind of do its thing and keep it as natural as possible,” she said.

Much of the debris removal took place last summer, with fallen logs being chipped and left in place. Dirt was sifted and also left on site. The ground was hydroseeded with native plants and seeds to help stabilize the soil. Officials are constantly monitoring the river, which has been working to cut a new channel and reestablish itself.

Kelly said she and her team are working with FEMA on a grant that would allow the county to buy the land impacted from property owners.

The buyout would be voluntary and Kelly said the county would make sure the space remains “a natural environment without structures.”

Elaine Young said the last year has been somewhat lonely without her neighbors – although those who survived still come over for dinner now and then. She said she has never once thought of moving.

“It’s my home,” she said. “I would never leave this community now.”