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Former Snohomish County Executive Gary Haakenson reflected on the Oso Landslide

By LUKE PUTVIN | Last Updated October 3, 2019

On September 21 at the Lynnwood-Alderwood Manor Heritage Museum, Former Snohomish County Executive Gary Haakenson reflected on the Oso Landslide.

Occurring on March 22, 2014, the Oso Landslide took the lives of 43 people. It was the deadliest landslide in United States history.

Haakenson recalled the lack of an organized rescue effort right after the landslide. “There were just ordinary citizens as well as off-duty firefighters with shovels digging through all the muck,” he said. “It was truly at that point in time a grassroots effort… And truly all those people meant well… but unfortunately the liability from all that was crazy.”

Going on to remember the exaggeration by the media at the time, Haakenson recalled headlines that said hundreds died.

“There’s 49 homes there, first of all, and we know that it didn’t get all of the 49 homes; there’s no way it could have been hundreds of people. But that’s the media; they just grabbed onto it and started running with it.”

Nobody at the time had taken charge in leading the effort until Haakenson’s boss told him, “From today on, you’re up there; you’re in charge.”

More professional search and rescue teams began to come in and assist, including an elite search and rescue team from California.

“We’re finding, as we go along, not necessarily bodies, but pieces,” Haakenson said. “And, in fact, that was most of what we found.”

The medical examiner’s office there only had about six employees, and they had to set up a temporary area on site.

“Every day was hard because you just didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

Haakenson remembered the power struggle to take charge between municipalities and government agencies, and he also remembered how elected officials visited the aftermath.

“I’m sure they were there for their own reasons, but in most cases, it made it difficult for us to do the job.”

Haakenson went on to describe the search for the last missing person. They knew where her house was and had dug into her garage. The woman had gone out for a walk that morning, and that was all they knew.

“It was important for the sheriff to find all 43 people after having found 42.”

After a few weeks, the turning point was when the teams found her bra in the mud with her name on it. According to the woman’s children, this is what their mom did.

While giving a speech one day, Haakenson’s phone rang. It was the sheriff letting him know that they had found the woman.

After finding all the people, Haakenson’s job shifted to recovery and what to do with the land.

“In a nutshell, we determined that the land was never going to be sold again once it was all put back into place,” Haakenson said.

Additionally, after discussions with FEMA, the county bought the land, was reimbursed by FEMA and provided compensation to landowners.

“After that, I had a lot of days to think about why I was even at the county,” Haakenson said. “I left my nice little Edmonds job where I had a five-minute commute to work every day. And in the end, it was kind of like, maybe I was just supposed to be there for that particular job. I don’t know. But I knew that my time was done after that.”

After more than 18 years in public service, including serving as the Mayor of Edmonds from 2000-2010, Haakenson retired from the Snohomish County Executive Director position on October 8, 2014.

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