President Obama says the “whole country” is thinking about the victims of the Oso landslide in Snohomish County.
The President visited the slide zone Tuesday to mark the one month anniversary of the tragedy. The death toll currently stands at 41 with two people still missing.
Obama first took an aerial tour of the slide zone then met privately with families of the victims and with first responders. Then the President appeared at the Oso firehouse. He arrived without ceremony or introduction.
He opened by saying, “Good afternoon everybody,” to the crowd.
The President was flanked by Governor Jay Inslee, members of the congressional delegation and local officials. Obama said he and the first lady are grieving too and he pledged the ongoing support of the federal government and the nation.
“We’re not going anywhere," he said. "We’ll be here as long as it takes because while very few Americans have heard of Oso before the disaster struck, we’ve all been inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together.”
“These are folks who love this land and it’s easy to see why because it’s gorgeous and there’s a way of life here that’s represented and to see the strength in adversity of this community I think should inspire all of us because this is also what America’s all about.”
The President closed by invoking the words on the banner that hung above him: “Oso Strong.”
“We’re going to be strong right alongside you. Alright?”
Afterwards, the President shook hands and took a picture with nine-year-old Landon Harper and his seven-year-old brother Levi. Their dad is the Oso fire chief. Landon says he’s glad the President came to see what their rural community is made of.
“It’s just amazing how much people have pulled together as a community and helped out each other.”
Among those Obama met with privately were Frank and John Hadaway of Puyallup. Their 53-year-old brother, Steven, is one of two people still missing in the slide. John says the President took time to hear each family’s story.
“I mean what else more can you ask?”
But it’s the searchers he’s most grateful to.
“The guys that are out there that are digging through that muck on a daily basis, them are the heroes. We’re just two people that miss the hell out of their brother.”
One of those guys digging through the muck was a volunteer searcher named Christian Johnson. He came to the firehouse to hear the president speak.
“After I got off work I’d get in there and go keep searching,” he says. "I was trying to find a friend’s wife and grandchild at the time.”
Johnson says he was there when his friend’s infant granddaughter was found.
“Another guy was running the machine and I was the ground guy.”
Johnson says in that moment he could not stop crying.
“I picked her up and wrapped her in my sweatshirt and held her for a second and then set her back down," he recalls. "That’s what I was told to do.”
Johnson is a father himself with another baby on the way. He says the past month has been tough emotionally. Obama’s visit offered this community a chance to pause and reflect one month later.
But the work continues. Christian Johnson is now helping build a bypass road as part of his job with the state. He says something good has come out of this tragedy that outsiders will never truly understand.
“People that probably haven’t talked to each in a long time are now good friends so it’s definitely made the community a lot stronger, a lot stronger," he says. "So I don’t think the president or the governor or anybody else will know how that feels.”
This community will need that strength in the months and years ahead.
Photos: The 530 slide - by Snohomish County via Flickr