7:40am

Sun March 30, 2014
Around the Nation

Washington Mudslide Response Is A Community Effort

Originally published on Sun March 30, 2014 5:59 pm

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Washington state residents held a moment of silence yesterday to honor the victims of the massive mudslide that flattened a swath of a small rural community. Search teams have pulled 18 bodies from the mud and debris. But the number of missing has fallen sharply, down to 30. Barbara Tolbert is the mayor of Arlington, Washington, one of the towns nearest to the affected area. She says fire and rescue workers from her town were among the first on the scene. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA TOLBERT: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us, Barbara, about the ongoing rescue operation?

TOLBERT: I could tell you that they're still going on. We're facing some inclement weather. It's raining again this weekend, which makes the rescue and recovery efforts a little bit slow-going. Very challenging weather for the people that are up there working the site.

MARTIN: You say rescue and recovery. It has been a week since the slide occurred. Is there any hope that anyone might still at this point be found alive?

TOLBERT: We all have great hope and prayers that some miracle will happen. But I think we're facing the reality. We haven't rescued anybody since the day the slide happened.

MARTIN: Are you getting all the support you need from the state and federal government?

TOLBERT: From the local level to the national level. It's just been amazing how quickly we can marshal the forces. We have about a thousand new faces in town this week. One of our old high schools has been taken over by the FEMA site. Hundreds of workers coming in to rest our weary troops. I've not seen this level of support marshaled in such a quick time ever.

MARTIN: I understand you've been down to see the devastation firsthand. Can you describe what you saw?

TOLBERT: I can tell you that the pictures that we've seen on the news and in the papers don't do it justice. It is completely overwhelming. It's literally one scoop of dirt at a time as they sift through a mud pile and everything is the same color gray. And as they pull debris out, water backfills the area that they've pulled things out. And it's just an incredibly ongoing challenging mission to get through that debris pile.

MARTIN: Do you know folks, do you know families who have lost loved ones in this?

TOLBERT: I do, Rachel. And I think this is something that people need to understand in these small communities. These are communities that have such deep, solid roots to them. It's not unusual to meet somebody who's fifth generation and is Stillaguamish Valley, or Stilly Valley as we call the area. We all know people. We're all connected. Four of my friends and my family's friends from church and other associations are still on the list of people missing.

MARTIN: How are the residents of your town holding up? Many of them have been involved in the rescue and recovery effort. That is hard work.

TOLBERT: It's really hard work. And now that we're a week into this, we're seeing the strains on them, seeing the weariness in their eyes. That's the next concern, is how we can emotionally keep up. This is an amazing town and it's an amazing area. Very resilient. The way that the town has come together has been amazing. Having the world really wrap its arms around us and care about our community has given people some of the strength and energy they know they need to keep going and keep being there caring for each other.

MARTIN: Barbara Tolbert. She is the mayor of Arlington, Washington, speaking to us about last week's tragic mudslide near there. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Barbara.

TOLBERT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.