Living in the Shadow of Landslide Risk

Apr 3, 2014

The landslide in Oso, Washington served as a devastating reminder of one fact of life in the Northwest: landslides happen.

Ben Van Dusen has lived in a landslide and flood-prone area near Mt. Index in Washington's Cascade Mountains for 20 years. He says he loves the beauty of the place but feels "stuck".
Credit Ashley Ahearn

In some places, it’s a risk people have learned to live with.

Landslides have wiped out the only access road to one rural community along the Skykomish River three times since December. A dozen homes in the Mt. Index River Sites community were destroyed by the slides. Fortunately no one was hurt.

I’m walking by a wall of muck and roots and exposed freshly broken trees, naked faces of silt and clay from a slide that happened here just this week, an old tin roof of a house that’s just folded in half. And people live here. They choose to live here. Why?

Loren Brayton: “All that slid last night. I got stuck on the other side. I live right here. I own that right there. I’m building a cabin on that rock. Can’t really see me but it’s working its way around me.”

Loren Brayton pushes his camouflage hat back on his head and puts down his chainsaw for a minute to talk. He’s cutting away tree trunks that are blocking the road to his cabin site.

The hillside above him is geologically similar to the one above the town of Oso, though smaller.

Houses, torn into pieces, jut out of the debris at odd angles. Burgundy couch cushions from someone’s living room soak in the rain and the mud.

Loren Brayton: "For all the people here there was personal property loss and there was real estate loss. We had no deaths. So I compare this to Oso. I feel for them more than I do for us. We’ll recover."

"If there were people in these houses?"

Loren Brayton: “They would have been gone.”

 “Does that make you scared as a homeowner?”

Loren Brayton: “When it’s time to go you’ll go. Well like yesterday I was up here and it slid below me. The only concern I had was getting my tools in and getting them safe for the night because I’ll always work my way out.”

Brayton’s family has owned this sliver of land next to Sunset Falls since the 70s and he wants to retire here.

He says the quality of life makes it worth the risk.

Loren Brayton: “Everywhere you look is beauty. We’re not worried about having to put our kids in schools that have metal detectors so they’re safe. It’s a sanctuary. There you are. That’s why people live here. It’s a sanctuary from city life.”

I slog my way up what’s left of the dirt road alongside Sunset Falls. The Skykomish River pounds down next to me - a not too subtle reminder of how much power water has over this landscape.

A guy jumps on his ATV and zooms through the muck ahead of me. For the 230 or so people who live on the other side of the Sunset Falls slide, ATV is the only way to get home. Many of them are without power or water right now, and have been, off and on, for weeks.

But this is a private road so there’s no government money available to fix it. Since December the community has spent close to 60,000 dollars clearing landslide debris off this road again and again.

Lynne Kelly has lived here for 30 years and serves on the community board. We sit in a pair of old plastic chairs looking out over the wreckage of cracked, raw earth and debris.

Lynne Kelly: “We shouldn’t even be sitting here, much less putting a road through here over and over. I watched our contractor for two months dig one lane through. Faster than he could put it in his dump truck and haul it away more would come down. It just has to stop, you just can’t… well actually we really did run out of money. There is no money.”

There’s talk of building a bridge over the Skykomish so that people who are blocked in on the far side of the slide can get out the other way. But that would cost almost half a million dollars, and there’s not enough money in this community to pay for it.

Kelly’s not optimistic about the chances of getting a loan. There are “For Sale” signs dotting this dirt road.

Lynne Kelly: “People are just wrapping their heads around evacuating and changing their lifestyle and as much as I hate to say it, the Oso slide has been a big wake up call.”

Further on down the dirt road I stop by Ben Van Dusen’s house. He unfolds two lawn chairs and we sit in his back yard in the rain, looking out over his collection of rusting antique cars.

Ben Van Dusen: “From those cars you can see I’m a child of the 50s and 60s. I put together the model cars and when I finally had a chance I rounded up some wrecks from the boneyard and there they sit. You wanna buy one? (laughs). Where were we?”

We look out towards craggy white Mt. Index towering thousands of feet over us. Van Dusen has a million dollar view. But when he bought this little house 2 decades ago he paid less than 60,000 dollars for it.

Life’s beautiful here, but it hasn’t been easy. In the past Van Dusen’s had to evacuate because of flooding. A landslide took out the road half a mile from here in 2009.

But Van Dusen says he can’t afford to leave. He delivers magazines and is starting to get some gigs as an actor, but things have been really hard since the recession.

Ben Van Dusen: “Right now, today, I am stuck. I’m turned the hot water off. I don’t have TV, Comcast, I don’t have any of that. I get DVDs from the library so I am stuck. If that’s a dangerous slope, too bad. This is it.”

He says that as much as he loves the quiet and the wild spirit that drew him to this place, he wishes the government would buy all the residents out. People were meant to visit, not live here, he says.

Ben Van Dusen: “I would relocate maybe to Skagit county or somewhere out in the flatlands, someplace where I could grow some food and work on these cars.”

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