By Rick Lund
ARLINGTON, WA (May 5, 2014) — The active search for the victims of the devastating March mudslide near Oso has been suspended. But the grieving continues, as do the questions of how could God have let this happen or why were some people spared and not others.
Life in the serene, picturesque Stillaguamish Valley was shattered at 10:37 a.m. on March 22, when the lower bench of Mount Higgins collapsed and unloaded the equivalent of 3 million dump-trucks carrying glacial-fill dirt of fine sand and silt.
It smashed into the Steelhead Drive neighborhood with the power of a hundred locomotives as it roared across the Stillaguamish River, snapping tall trees in its path like matchsticks and burying much of the neighborhood of riverfront homes.
When the muck and debris had settled—some of it piled as high as 70 feet—it stretched a mile wide and a mile long. Forty-three lives had been lost. So far 41 bodies have been recovered.
Doug and Kim Dix, members of United Church, a dually affiliated congregation that is part of both the Covenant and the United Methodist Church, were close to being among the dead. They live just a couple hundred yards from where the slide occurred.
Doug was working in his barn when he heard what he thought were some of the double-bladed Huey helicopters that occasionally log the hillsides in the area.
“When they go over your house they make a pressure wave, and I’m feeling that pressure wave, but it sounded like the engine was just shredding,” Doug said. “So my first thought was it’s a plane crash or one of those helicopters hauling out a log, and he’s going to crash into my barn.
“I’m looking to the tree tops, but there’s just enough trees between me and the slide, that I couldn’t see the slide. The noise lasted about a minute.”
Seconds later, the power went out. Doug walked toward the house as his wife, Kim, was walking toward him. They looked at each other and together blurted, “What the heck was that?”
Doug then glanced toward the river, which coursed about 70 feet below him, and spotted large trees floating by. Then the pristine water turned to “blue-clay mud.”
It’s not the first time a chunk of the hillside had sloughed off into the Stillaguamish, and Doug still thought this was no different. It wasn’t until he drove downstream to the bridge that he met a retired fire marshal and learned the magnitude of the slide.
“In retrospect,” Doug said, “the noise was so loud and so long that I should have known it wasn’t a typical slide.”
Fearing the rest of the hillside was unsafe, emergency officials ordered the couple and their neighbors to evacuate. They would spend the night at a local motel watching TV coverage of what is now considered the biggest natural disaster in the state since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Doug says he knows at least “four or five” of the people who died in the slide. But he can’t bring himself to look at the entire list. It’s too painful—the randomness of who got caught up in it, and who didn’t.
Doug and Kim knew one of the victims very well, 36-year-old Summer Raffo. She didn’t even live in the riverfront subdivision that took the brunt of the slide.
“She was just driving down the highway and she gets killed in her car,” he said. “They rented a farm across the bridge from us, and she was probably coming to feed the horses.”
A need to pray
Pastors at Arlington United are getting use to “why” questions. Of course, they have no easy answers. Although none of the members of Arlington United were injured in the slide, practically everyone in the congregation knew of someone who perished. Several members were first responders on the scene.
Through it all, Arlington United has been at the forefront of relief efforts. The church has been a clearinghouse for donated items. Two nights after the slide, it was the site of an emotional prayer meeting that drew national media attention.
Neither of the church’s pastors were in town when the hillside, about 16 miles east of Arlington, gave way, however. Senior pastor Deena Jones was in Guatemala finishing a three-month sabbatical. Jessica Ronhaar, the church’s director of family ministries, was taking a rare weekend off in Jones’ absence, snowmobiling with her family on Mount Baker. Out of cell range, she didn’t get the news until the day after the slide on her drive home.
After offering her help to relief agencies such as Red Cross and getting no takers, Ronhaar wanted to do something. Anything. She decided the community “needed to pray.”
She quickly organized a prayer meeting that night (Monday) at the church. She asked a friend of hers at City Hall to post a notice of the prayer meeting on the city’s website. The word spread like wildfire.
Ronhaar and other church members were caught off guard by a throng of media members from around the nation and Canada. Reporters and TV cameramen from NBC, ABC and Fox News ringed the 101-year-old sanctuary. Ronhaar herself was interviewed that night on the “NBC Nightly News.”
“I didn’t think anything about it, and all of a sudden we had media everywhere,” Ronhaar said. “I’m thinking ‘what’s going on here’? I didn’t know quite what to do.”
So she prayed. And prayed again: “We confess that we are confused. Our emotions are high and our answers are few. We pray that your hand of mercy and of peace will be on our communities now.”
Those words would be printed in large type on a full-page tribute to the victims and first responders in the following Sunday’s edition of The Seattle Times.
The media onslaught made holding the prayer service difficult. Cameras were rolling, and though people were weeping, many were more reticent to pray publicly.
“We opened up the mike for people to come up and pray, but many of them were scared off (by the media),” Ronhaar said.
“But it was really needed for our community to have something,” she added. “A lot of people who came told me they were grateful the service was there.”
Word of the slide did not reach Jones in Guatemala until the middle of the following week. “It was very hard for me not to be there (in Arlington),” said Jones. “At that time, in Guatemala, I wasn’t really needed. I felt like I shouldn’t be there.”
Jones would later learn Ronhaar did a remarkable job leading the congregation in a time of crisis. “She couldn’t have done any better,” Jones said.
Let the healing begin
Weeks after the slide, Ronhaar said she was still having trouble sleeping.
“I have dreams that I need to get out there and help someone,” she said. “I struggled with the whole thing, helpless to a point, but that we need to bring hope to this community now.”
Ronhaar, who in addition to her part-time job at the church, is director of Youth Dynamics in Arlington. She has spent the majority of her time since the tragedy offering counseling.
Many of the people with whom she meets are students. Some are members of her congregation who were first responders. Others are just friends.
A man Ronhaar knows well helped his good friend dig for the remains of his 14-year-old son, Denver Harris, until the teenager’s body was found. The wife of the man who helped his friend told Ronhaar that her husband was suffering from nightmares.
“I’ve been burdened by knowing people that have seen things that none of us should experience,” Ronhaar said.
Arlington-area ministers have worked together to care to serve the people of their communities. “At the last ministerial meeting,” Ronhaar said, “they told us they might be calling on the pastors of Arlington to come out to the site and pray over the body parts. That floored me. I don’t know what to do with that.”
Ronhaar and Jones are doing what they can: Pray with the mourners, walk with them in their darkness and their pain.
“I have a friend who lost her father-in-law and mother-in-law,” said Ronhaar. “She’s been questioning why did God make this happen.
“It’s an interesting conversation. But God didn’t make this happen. God is good. God does not make bad.”
Rick Lund is a presentation editor for The Seattle Times. He is a member of Bethany Covenant Church in Mount Vernon, Washington, and the editor of the Pacific Northwest Conference News.