After the Country’s Deadliest Mudslide, This Town Came Out Stronger Than Ever

“I don’t know that the Red Cross had ever encountered a community that would dig right in and take care of their own like this.”

S. Warren/AP/ShutterstockIt was the first clear day all month in Darrington, Washington, and most community members were out enjoying the sun. But the heavy rains had already done their damage. As the rain-soaked land turned to liquid, mud and debris shot out, bringing a chunk of Hazel Mountain with it. The Oso slide on March 22, 2014, would mark the deadliest mudslide in American history.

Sixty-year resident Diane Boyd was in the car but stopped when the saw the mudslide coming. “It looked like a cement slurry,” she says. “There was a house in the road, BBQ propane tanks popping. It was awful and no one knew what was going on.”

Meanwhile, Martha Rasmussen, president of Darrington Strong, was hiking on a historic trail about a mile from the slide when she felt the rumbling. “I couldn’t hear anything; I just felt it,” she says. When she heard sirens coming from two different directions, she knew something serious was going on.

Rushing home, Rasmussen and her husband discovered their phones were dead. The Oso slide had taken most phone, Internet, and TV lines down with it, and blocked the main exit out of the 1,300-person town. They were cut off.

Before waiting for the government to send aid, Darrington sprung into action. “Our people jumped to it the day of the slide,” says Rasmussen. “We’re self-reliant and just went out and helped people.”

Loggers—the main industry in Darrington—and other community members started an operation to rescue survivors. The slide killed 43 people, but the town’s quick actions helped save nine lives, including a six-month-old baby, according to past resident Loretta Bedford, who nominated the town as the Nicest Place in America in 2017. Locals worked long hours in the mud, in temperatures cold enough to almost kill some of the rescue dogs on the team.

Emergency task forces from the county and federal government who came the next week asked the community members to let their forces do the work to keep the locals safe, but Darrington refused to back down with so much work to be done. “They didn’t understand the slide. They didn’t realize how much material was down, because they hadn’t seen it before,” says Rasmussen. “No way we were going to leave people.”

Meanwhile, others gathered in the community center, setting up beds and bringing in food, Boyd. Eventually, the gymnasium would overflow with donations. “We’d get it all sorted out and delivered to the proper places, and it would be full again in an hour or two,” says Boyd.

S. Warren/AP/ShutterstockFor about a month, the entire community rallied around the men and women searching for survivors and bodies. Instead waiting to ask what could be done, locals would clean toilets, showers, and dishes. To save precious time, locals would eat all three meals outside or in the community center, brought in by other Darrington residents. Red Cross workers tried convincing the town to stop bringing in food for sanitary reasons, but they wanted to supply food.

“A lot of people couldn’t go dig on the road or help people search for family members. All they could do was cook, and that was a big thing,” says Boyd. “I don’t know that the Red Cross had ever encountered a community that would dig right in and take care of their own like this.”

Other loggers got to work creating a new road for people to come in and out. With the highway closed, anyone commuting to Arlington had to drive 50 to 60 miles out of their way to get to work. A maintenance road temporarily opened for residents. It was only wide enough for one-way traffic, though, so drivers would wait for the direction to switch every half-hour. After about a month of working 10- to 14-hour days, Darrington volunteers were able to open a bypass for the residents.

Today, 43 trees line the rebuilt highway where the mudslide took place to memorialize each of the victims. It’s a sobering drive for Darrington residents. “I call it the ‘dark sector’ because there used to be lights there, and now it’s just this big, dark area,” says Rasmussen.

Through the tragedy, though, Darrington strengthened its already tight bond. “You never want to have this happen,” says Boyd, “but it did pull our community together in a different way than it had in years.”

Do you live in a place where people go the extra mile to help one another? Help us in our search for Nicest Place in America by nominating it today! If chosen, it will appear on an upcoming cover of Reader’s Digest!

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.