The Associated Press
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By Rikki King
The Daily Herald
OSO — Hundreds of pieces of personal property have been recovered from the site of the March 22 mudslide near Oso.
Books. Photos. Rings.
Guns. Flags. Computers.
Cars. Cameras. Wills.
As many as 50 items are still being recovered each day as workers search and sift through debris, said Gary Haakenson, the Snohomish County manager overseeing the slide recovery efforts.
Officials have been working to clean and restore the items and return them to families in a careful and respectful way, Haakenson said.
Some of the recovered items belonged to the 43 people who were killed in the slide.
The items are stored in a reunification center at an undisclosed location.
Many of the recovered items were muddy but not seriously damaged, Haakenson said. The property is laid out on tables and shelving units. Families are given private time to look.
Local experts have helped, including those specially trained in finding owner information inside computers, or in restoring photos, Haakenson said.
“There’s just a whole lot of work that’s going on behind the scenes,” he said.
Searchers have kept a covered space set aside at the debris field where found property is taken and initially cleaned before being sent to the reunification center.
Each family who has lost loved ones or property has been invited to the center, Haakenson said.
“Some have chosen not to. It’s just too painful,” he said. “Some have said, ‘We’ll do it later.’”
Some have made multiple visits.
“It’s a very, very difficult process for families to go through, to walk in there and see some of the belongings of their loved ones,” Haakenson said.
Many items have been returned to their owners. Some folks don’t want the property back, Haakenson said. Other families have expressed interest in donating mementos to a memorial.
Auto insurance companies have been involved because of recovered vehicles.
There are still questions left to sort out, such as what happens to property that is not claimed.
Sensitive items, such as tax records, firearms and wills, are being kept secure by the county sheriff’s office.
Work also continues to restore private land that was damaged or otherwise affected by rescue and recovery efforts, particularly lots along Highway 530, Haakenson said.
Some 200,000 cubic yards of dirt and debris are still being sifted. In some areas, the mud was 25 feet deep.
Crews with heavy equipment are expected to be working 10-hour days in the slide area through September, primarily for searching and removing debris.
The damaged highway is open to two-way traffic, with “substantial completion” of permanent repairs anticipated before the rainy season begins in the fall.
Officials have repeatedly asked the public to be respectful while driving past the site, to stay in their cars, to not steal anything and to not wander around in an area considered by many to be hallowed ground.
The intensive search for the 43 people killed in the March 22 disaster in Oso ended in April, but workers have been screening debris and watching for the body of 44-year-old Kris Regelbrugge.
Her husband, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, also was killed when the slide crossed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and decimated their home in the community about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
“I’m humbled and honored that we are able [to] return Kris to her family,” Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said in a statement.
Researchers said precipitation in the area in March that might have exceeded 30 inches was one of multiple factors that contributed to making the slope unstable.
Others included groundwater seeping into the slide mass as well as changes in slope stress and soil that was weakened by previous landslides.
The landslide, the deadliest in U.S. history, occurred in two major stages minutes apart, according to the team of seven independent researchers with the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association.
A fast-moving mudflow remobilized a previous 2006 slide, bringing down old slide deposits across the valley that moved hundreds of meters beyond the river.
That first stage caused all or most of the destruction.
The upper section of the slope collapsed a few minutes later, with the main mass of that slide dropping about 350 feet and traveling as far as 2,000 feet in less than two minutes.
The scientists said there have been 15 large mapped landslides in the river valley over about 6,000 years.
The slides are estimated to happen every 400 to 1,500 years.
The team wrote that its investigation wasn’t intended to be “a final, conclusive study of the landslide.”
Joseph Wartman, an associate professor of civil engineering with the University of Washington and a team leader for the study, said there could be any number of factors that triggered it.
The group said examining practices such as timber harvesting was beyond the scope of its investigation, so it couldn’t say to what degree those practices contributed to the slide.
The team collected data during a four-day trip to Oso for the investigation funded by the National Science Foundation.
The report noted that the slide’s run-out was long but not particularly exceptional for a slide of its size.
“When you look at the site, you can’t imagine that it would run out that far. It’s really mind-boggling,” said Jean Benoit of the University of New Hampshire.
The report makes several broad recommendations, including urging that landslide risks be examined and that the public should be consistently told of those risks.