I should say here that while I didn't know this specific locality or the geology of the particular hillside involved that the news didn't really surprise me. And that, frankly, it shouldn't have surprised anyone else, including the people in the little town that woke up last week to find themselves very much dead.
Tim Egan has a good summary of the geology and the politics behind the deaths here. I can't really do much better at describing why these people were buried than he does:
"...who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions."As Egan points out the "problem" is not the science. We knew what happened, why it happened, and why it was damn likely to happen. The geology is pretty straightforward; western Washington (and parts of western Oregon but the Puget glaciation makes things an order of magnitude or three worse in WA...) combines steep terrain, lots of water, and weak substrate into a deck full of pretty deadly cards.
Throw in clearcut logging and you have a real wildcard in the deck.
No. The "problem" was and is really the suite of massive problems surrounding the politics of this region and of a hell of a lot of the way we Americans think in general.
First, a whole lot of rural western WA is pretty much logging and nothing else. If you close, or limit, the logging in the steep timberlands around these little towns then little towns like this Oso just flat-out die anyway. Only without the, you know, actual dying.
And then there's the question of "private property rights". A hell of a lot of the sorts of people who live in this little town, including the ones now buried under a shit-ton of hardening landslide debris, believed that they had the absolute right, and that the timber companies had the absolute right, to do absolutely whatever they wanted to do on "their" lands. And that to do anything to change, or stop, those people and companies doing those things was wrong.
So that while a whole hell of a lot of people knew that this hillside was unstable, and that logging around it was problematic at best, and that the possibility for the whole goddamn thing to move downhill on top of these people's houses was not so much a question of "if" as "when"...nobody actually pushed someone to do anything about that.
In this case the nobodies and someones involved would have had to accept that 1) there are limits, and deadly sharp, critical, limits on our human ability to fuck about with natural systems, and 2) that it is in humans' best interests to have an overall authority - let's call it "government" because, really, what the hell - to define and enforce restrictions on that human activity before it crosses those limits.
And rural western WA and a hell of a lot of today's United States is full of people who accept neither 1) nor 2).
So this one falls under the general heading of, what's the quote, something like "The willingness of someone not to believe something is directly related to how critical it is to their perceived self-interest not to believe it."?
They saw their self-interest as "private property rights" and "limited government" and not "natural hazards" or "regulation".
In order to believe that they had to deny that this could happen.
And then one morning their denial rose up and buried them deep.