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Oso, Wa. mudslide not simply a natural disaster
by Andy Freeman
Monday Mar 31st, 2014 4:44 PM
Most people in the U.S. have been submerged in the media bath of coverage on the deadly landslide event in Oso, Wa. that occurred March 22. News reports have highlighted both the tragic loss of life as well as the heroic efforts of rescuers, first to try to save lives and now to find and identify bodies. As of March 30, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office has confirmed that 18 of the dead have been identified, a further nine or 10 bodies have not been formally identified, and 30 people remain missing or unaccounted for as a result of the landslide. While landslides are natural events, this tragedy was not simply caused by nature; the drive for profit motivated a series of decisions that allowed this tragedy to occur.
Photo: Search and rescue worker in aftermath of mudslide in Oso, Wa. Note clear cut in background.

The particular hillside that slid across the Stillaguamish River in an event resembling a small tsunami has been variously called the Hazel Slide area and the Steelhead Haven Slide area. The slide hazard here has been well studied over the last 20 years. There have been several technical reportsndocumenting in some detail the geological processes involved in the persistent slide hazard along this stretch of the Stillaguamish River, one by Daniel Miller and two by Tracy Drury.

Geologists warned of danger

According to the research, the hillside on the north side of this bend of the Stillaguamish River is inherently unstable because the composition of the soil is based on loose gravel and sandy silt deposits combined with the bend in the river. The average level of the river undercuts the bend, called a “toe” and the cliff eventually overhangs the water below. In cases when there is a period of heavy rains preceded by a relative dry spell, the soil becomes saturated like a sponge. The difference is that a sponge has an inherent internal structure, whereas the sandy, gravelly silt deposits will collapse into a mile-long muddy puddle spilling out across the river. This process has occurred at an average frequency of once every 10 years for at least the last 80 years.

Research has detailed how clear-cutting a hillside will increase the frequency and the size of the slides because the trees absorb and hold large quantities of the water. Additionally, the tree covering adds a 10-foot deep layer of stability to the surface of the hillside. However, the presence of trees does not stop the eventuality of landslides, it merely decreases the frequency and severity of the landslides. The Oso slide area is inherently unstable.

Researchers had suggested ways to limit the river’s ability to undercut of the hillsides “toe” at the river bend, as a way to diminish the frequency and severity of the inevitable landslides and have stated that the long term clear-cutting of the hillside make efforts to alleviate landslide danger much more difficult. One researcher, Dr. Daniel Miller said, “Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river,” referring to the neighborhood destroyed by the current landslide. (Seattle Times, March 24)

Thus we can see that the loss of life and property in the Oso landslide in the Hazel (Steelhead) slide is directly attributable to the greed and ambition of timber companies and housing developers who built in the slide zone despite the clear warnings from scientists of the danger.

Workers demonstrate selfless heroism, give lie to capitalist myth of self-interest

This disaster also presents an opportunity to attack some of the dominant themes of the capitalist theory of reality.

One of the basic premises of the capitalist narrative is that the only way to motivate people is through raw unfettered self-interest at the expense of others. Yet this myth of capitalism is contradicted by the fact that neighbors of the victims in the landslide area have been risking arrest to dig through the quicksand in an effort to rescue and recover victims of the landslide, not to mention the heroic efforts of rescue personnel and volunteers, some of whom had to be towed to safety from the quicksand. This clearly demonstrates that workers can be motivated by factors other than raw greed and self-interest.

The competitive nature of capitalism is clearly to blame for the loss of life in this disaster. Everybody knew that this particular bend of the Stillaguamish River was in the direct path of the Hazel Slide. The drive for short-term gain led to the hillside being clear-cut by the big money logging investors. Why did the logging company chop down all of the trees over the last 60 years? Because they had to show a profit on the next quarter’s earning statement.

The system is to blame

Why did the developers build new homes in that neighborhood? To show a quick profit by selling homes to people who wanted cheaper housing in a stunning rural setting with good fishing. There was available land at a cheap price and the developers were willing to ignore any seemingly distant risk of a landslide for the prospect of showing a profit on next quarter’s earning statement. The residents were willing to believe that the developers knew what they were doing and purchased houses in an idyllic setting. Tragically, instead of a paradise, some suffered a hellish death being suffocated and literally ground up by a tsunami of mud.

Imagine a society not run by the whip of next quarter’s earning statement. Imagine instead a planned economy run for the benefit of all of society’s working people. No one would be trying to make profit by building housing in a known slide area or by clear-cutting a hillside with a known slide hazard pointing directly at a residential neighborhood. Further, once a slide hazard had been proven to exist, in a socialist system, residents would have been relocated to a safer location, and perhaps this particular bend of the Stillaguamish River turned into a game preserve.

We hold the capitalist system directly responsible for putting houses and people directly in the path of the Oso mudslide disaster. Market forces motivate developers to building housing where the profits are greatest in order to produce capital to invest in further development projects, rather than building houses in the safest, most sensible locations. It is not simply a matter of unscrupulous people, although such people do exist. The point is that the system puts market forces into play that compel those with economic power to make choices that maximize profits in the short term rather than choices that will benefit people, society and the future of the planet, in the long run.

Content may be reprinted with credit to

March 30, 2014

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Truth seeker
Monday Mar 31st, 2014 11:17 PM
In this article it states that there is clear-cut in the background of the photo. This is a complete falsehood and a boldface lie. What you see in the photo is where the mountain was at one time and the area in brown is mud from the slide. It has been over 17 years since logging was allowed on the mountain. As a resident of Darrington/Oso I know first hand as I have seen with my own two eyes. The devastation was caused in no small part to the amount of rain that we have received this year. Tell the truth instead of pushing agendas.....
by anon
Tuesday Apr 1st, 2014 9:54 AM
Like fracking and earthquakes, landslides go with clearcuts.

Hurting in Oso will last generations. It's hard to acknowledge that you, fine people in a fine state, are expendable when it comes to the almighty dollar.

Original author: please name names - who is the developer? What bank and what bank officer loaned on those properties? Who did the enviromental studies? Who in the state apparatus signed off on the logging? Who gave planning and developement permission? What insurance company sold the policies?

Until we know the names of the real actual people responsible for this disaster, we will never know peace.
by Adam
Tuesday Apr 1st, 2014 10:19 PM
The author ignores the most important fact in an attempt to place blame on a capitalist society, loggers and contractors. It may be difficult to hear, but the only people responsible for their deaths are the homeowners themselves. What ever happened to personal responsibility? As stated, the landslide danger was well documented in this area. Add to that the danger of living near a river that has natural drastic changes in it's course, (as evidenced by reviewing satellite pictures of the area over the last 60 years) and it's obvious that the risks were well known. The homeowners knew the danger, accepted it, and decided to live there anyway. They assumed the risk and lost. Can you really blame the businesses that provided products that consumers wanted regardless of whether it was in the consumer's best interest? That is how sales works. I can't tell you how many times I've dealt with customers that needed one product, but chose a different one because of superficial reasons like the landowners did in this case. They gave up safety and in this case their lives in order to get the other benefits. Shame on you (the author) for trying to redistribute the blame. That is exactly the type of attitude of someone who fails to take responsibility for their own actions.
by Dennis
Wednesday Apr 2nd, 2014 6:41 AM
"The competitive nature of capitalism is clearly to blame for the loss of life in this disaster."

But I can't, blaming capitalism is wrong, it is idiotic. The 40 thousand or so people killed on the road could also be described as a lost blamed on Capitalism. But it is not, it is the fault of how badly people are prepared to drive on the open road. If auto racing where as dangerous at the speeds they drive, it would be banned.. The article is correct in the clear cut to dirt level in multiple acres, on a slope none the less.. It is clear from historic pictures that the site had a slide many years ago.. And that ground was unstable to begin with.. The problem is that there are other sections that may do the same thing and soon..

Capitalism is America, but people have to take a stand and block stupidity has in the mountain top removal in Kentucky. The coal companies are killed the streams in the area and causing illness in the people there.. Our government refuses to help, instead they give out permits..

It is NOT Capitalism, it is people unwilling to stand up for their rights.. This disaster would have happened under and kind of government, except in some areas it would not be reported or covered on a daily basis..
by M A Cramer
Thursday Apr 3rd, 2014 7:07 PM
As someone who has seen the results of this mudslide with the lost of parents and own children I find this article vulgar. Not all events are rooted in conspiracy. I can only imagine what you will author when "the" earthquake takes place along the west coast.
by anon
Friday Apr 4th, 2014 1:11 PM
Sadly, officials knew all along the slope was dangerous. Let the lawsuits begin.

Only two years before allowing people to build new homes near the slope that collapsed last month, Snohomish County officials had explored taking the community in the opposite direction.

Concerned that a landslide there could “threaten life and property,” they considered buying up the properties and emptying much of the Steelhead Haven neighborhood.

…While a county official has said the fatal slide was unforeseen, the county’s own 2004 documents show otherwise. (more)