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How Do We Respectfully Remember Tragedy?

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Region 10 Office of External Affairs Director Ryan Ike remembers the Oso landslides. He also discusses the importance of honoring survivors and lives lost after disaster strikes.

Anniversaries of horrific events are complicated. For those who remember the event from seeing it on TV or reading a headline, it’s a reminder of something that happened to someone else. For those of us in the emergency management profession, there is a feeling of professional responsibility and a genuine desire to help. Over time, and repeated exposure to tragedies around the country, callouses form and anniversaries can lose their meaning. For those who lost everything, including friends, neighbors, pets, and family members, anniversaries are scars that bring back profound sadness, guilt and pain. So how do we remember disasters respectfully and authentically without re-traumatizing? How do we create space and facilitate closure for those who witnessed the tragedy as well as those who were not present but were truly affected by something awful? 

On March 22, 2014 at 10:37 am, the deadliest landslide in US history occurred in Oso, Wash. In seconds, 49 homes and 43 members of a small rural community were consumed by 270 million cubic feet of mud and debris 30 to 70 ft deep. Landslides can be like earthquakes. They are sudden, violent, and disorienting events that literally change the landscape. A mountain vanishes and a river no longer flows.  While this was not my first disaster with FEMA, it was my first time experiencing the deep sadness and emotional impacts of such a sudden loss of so many lives. Less than 50 miles away from our regional office, this was not a typical activation; it was an event that impacted our workforce and their family and friends. Within days we would have nearly every urban search and rescue task force and their dogs joining local volunteers searching through the mud and rain in an area less than a square mile. Miraculously, those teams would eventually recover the remains of all 43 victims which, mercifully, provided an opportunity for family and friends to grieve and seek closure. 

Ten years later, I had an opportunity to join the remembrance and site dedication and witness the opening of The Slide Memorial. Along with representatives from responding agencies, former and current search and rescue professionals and volunteers, community leaders from the neighboring towns, county, tribes and state, and most importantly, surviving members and current residents of the Oso community gathered to mourn and bear witness to the opening of what I can only describe as the most incredible tribute to what was a life changing event for so many people in such a small place. 

Based at the foot of the slide, adjacent to the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, the Oso Slide Memorial pays tribute to the lost, the survivors, the response and the communities. The memorial is beautiful in design and function providing education about the local geology, tributes to the responders and the incredible work of the dogs who joined them, and, most significantly, 43 individual steel art displays that tell the stories of each person who died that day. It is a moving location that feels both welcoming to those who may have only read about the slide and those who are returning to find peace and comfort for what was no doubt the worst day of their life. As a lifelong resident of Washington, I add this memorial to the list of places like Mount Saint Helens that deserve to be visited and appreciated for the significant role it plays in our pacific northwest psyche. 

As emergency managers, we accept that our job is to be present and strong so that others may start their road to recovery, but we also know the importance of respectfully remembering tragedies. As I reflect on the ten year anniversary of the Oso landslide and as I walked the paths, looked out over the slide, viewed the individual art and saw familiar faces among the tears and smiles, I’m reminded that  may look different for everyone, it is important to have closure and a time and place to occasionally return to that is both peaceful and beautiful, just like Oso. 

Flowers painted on curved metal in a memorial garden.
Oso, WA - March 22, 2024 - Memorial site for Oso landslide