Sometimes government works | Rich Elfers

Carol Smith, resident of Enumclaw, was called to be in Arlington, Wash., at 6 a.m. on March 28 to help manage the aftermath of the March 22 Oso mudslide.

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  • Monday, May 5, 2014 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Carol Smith, resident of Enumclaw, was called to be in Arlington, Wash., at 6 a.m. on March 28 to help manage the aftermath of the March 22 Oso mudslide.

Carol is an employee of the State Department of Natural Resources and a member of the Washington Incident Management Team No. 4. Team No. 4 has about 50 members from all over the region. They are made up of those specializing in finance, plans, logistics, operations, safety and public information.

Headquarters for the management incident team was in the abandoned Arlington High School building. They had to work with no running water and the building was very dusty.

Ninety-nine percent of the time Carol and her team are sent to deal with forest fires in a region that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska, although they were sent to Louisiana after the Katrina hurricane disaster in 2005.

The mudslide “was nothing like a fire,” Carol said. Their skills were needed to serve in a different way in Oso.

When Carol and Team No. 4 arrived, there were already two Federal Emergency Management Agency Teams (which are made up of federal employees as well as local responders) on the scene. Many of them had gone to the 9/11 attack, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and to the Colorado flood.

Carol’s job was as a planner where she used maps to make grids of the 300-acre slide.

Geologists, engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Washington State Department of Transportation all had personnel coordinating their efforts at the site.

The slide area was a hazardous waste dump with leaking propane tanks from destroyed homes. No one was allowed to smoke lest the propane ignite. Destroyed septic systems and other chemicals created a lethal mix to hinder recovery efforts.

Workers had to wear special pants with their boots duct-taped to their pants to avoid contamination. They had to be detoxified by being hosed down every time they finished their workday. The 25 to 30 search dogs that were called in had to be carefully decontaminated after each day’s work, lest the chemicals present affect them.

Carol exclaimed, “God bless the Red Cross!” for their efforts at the disaster. They were there to feed the workers, aid and support the victims’ survivors. An aid group called “Soup Ladies” originating in Black Diamond also fed those who needed meals.

Every time a body was recovered these teams went through a ritual where the remains were loaded onto a covered pick up. Aid workers marched silently behind the truck to honor those whose remains had been found. Proper respect was given to the dead and those who grieved their loved ones.

There are three types of emergency response teams in the nation: Type 1 is made up of all federal employees like the FEMA teams, Type 2 are the teams like Carol’s; Type 3 teams are made up of locals with fewer people.

As I listened to Carol tell me her story I came to the realization that for all the criticism government gets for being incompetent and bungling, here is an exception to that narrow stereotype. Sometimes government agencies get things right. Sometimes they are able to work together with private aid agencies to reach a common goal. Sometimes they have to deal with death and destruction, a challenging task that requires skill and fortitude while coping with mind-boggling tragedy.

Sometimes they do achieve their goals and serve the public—their bosses. Sometimes criticism of government is unfounded. Instead of looking for the failures of government, we should more often look for its successes, and stop and give our appreciation to people who often do not receive praise for the hard work and sacrifice they do as part of their jobs.

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Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.
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