Oso, Washington, is a very small town (at least, it used to be). Until now, most people had never heard of it—it doesn’t even show up on Mapquest.com. Suddenly, in the time it took for a mountain to tumble down to the valley below, everyone worldwide seems to have heard about Oso.
I knew of it because we built our family cabin at Lake Cavanagh, which is at the end of the gravel, potholed Oso Road. Now half the town is under a mountain of dirt, rock and mud.
When it first hit the news, I thought it was just a standard mudslide like the ones we regularly see around here when the rains come down extra hard in the winter. Because of all the logging that Washington State is famous for, washouts are now commonplace. Logging slash left behind from years of clear cutting clogs up in the creek beds and blows out the culverts in a dramatic race to the bottom, taking out everything in its path and choking the salmon spawning streams below. But these slides are usually limited by the size of the creek where they originated.
It wasn’t until I saw aerial photos of the enormity of this washout that it became clear something strange and new had happened in the town of Oso. This was no surface water run-off, but though timber companies will probably never admit it, you can bet your bottom dollar that this will also ultimately prove to be the result of clear-cut logging in years past. Trees grew tall and wide in this neck of the woods, before the initial assault on old growth cedars around the turn of the 20th century. Many of the forests in Washington have been logged off several times by now. The aerial photos reveal smaller, even-aged trees on the slope above the washout. I learned from having a 300′ deep well drilled in western Washington, that, despite the sometime steady rain, there is really no aquifer to speak of. And no real rocks in these foothills either. Water finds its way through cracks and fissures in the claylike soil that passes for rock.
While old growth trees are vast reservoirs for rainwater, younger, smaller trees only hold so much. Although this winter has been a comparably dry one, heavy rains in late February and March have made up for it. In a sure sign of climate change, the northwest has been seeing more downpours measured in the inches per hour, rather than per day. Excess water can fill the cracks and fissures to overflow, forcing the cracks to expand and sometimes, as we saw in Oso, break away large chunks of earth.
For now all we do is hope for the people who were trapped, entombed, in their uprooted houses. Hope that they died quickly, that is. President Obama stated today that we should “pray” for the victims. Pray for what? Their souls, that they made it to heaven? If anyone is trapped under the mud this long, they’ve surely run out of oxygen by now.
Also in today’s news, a train derailment resulted, surprisingly, in no deaths. It was a “miracle,” the media announced. So my question to the media is, where are God’s miracles in the case of the Oso mudslide? All of this reminds me of those haunting lines in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” asking, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
If you think you know why any loving god would save a train full of people, while letting others suffer under the weight of a mountain, more power to you. Personally, I still haven’t figured it out.