Awareness critical in landslide preparedness

By Kelly Ducote, The Observer March 26, 2014 10:23 am

Could an event as catastrophic as the one in Washington happen here? Geologist Jason McClaughry is quick to note that the geology and landscape is much different in Eastern Oregon but doesn’t rule out the possibility. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
Could an event as catastrophic as the one in Washington happen here? Geologist Jason McClaughry is quick to note that the geology and landscape is much different in Eastern Oregon but doesn’t rule out the possibility. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)

Education is the best tool in preparing for a landslide, officials say.

With several people dead and scores missing following a catastrophic landslide in Snohomish County, Wash., local officials are urging residents to be aware of the risks that come with living in a valley. 

“We have had a few small landslides,” said JB Brock, Union County Emergency Services manager. “I haven’t seen any large ones since I’ve been on the job, but there’s always that potential.”

Brock said knowing the risks of living near the mountains and the geological issues that can accompany that is probably the best tool in preparing for a possible landslide.

“Understanding the history of where you live and the potential is possibly one of the most important things you can do,” Brock said.

No warnings were issued in Washington before the deadly landslide started moving, the Associated Press reported. The rushing wall of quicksand-like mud, trees and other debris flattened about two dozen homes and critically injured several people. Two bodies were recovered Tuesday, while eight more were located in the debris field from Saturday’s slide 55 miles northeast of Seattle, according to The Associated Press. That brings the likely death toll to 24, though authorities are keeping the official toll at 16 until the eight other bodies are recovered.

“One of the things this tragedy should teach us is the need to get better information about geologic hazards out to the general public,” David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor with the University of Washington in Seattle, told the AP. “Where are the potentially unstable slopes? How big a risk do they pose? And what should be done to let homeowners know about that?”

Geologist Jason McClaughry, who serves the Eastern Oregon region for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, says it’s difficult to predict the timing of landslides but that knowing where they are likely to occur is helpful.

“Lots of landslides that we see are activations of older slides,” he said.

That’s why the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries prepares maps, made available on its website. The Statewide Landslide Information Layer for Oregon, or SLIDO, map shows landslides geologist have documented in Oregon. Portions of Union, Wallowa and Baker counties have all seen landslides in the past.

“We actually map the distribution of landslide deposits based on field evidence we see in topography,” McClaughry said.

That means the documented landslides may have occurred prior to settlement in the valleys.

“Most of them are much older than that,” the geologist said. “There are certainly ones active that have occurred recently.”

Smaller landslides are fairly typical in the Elgin area, and Brock said some have occurred near Cove, but they rarely cause damage.

Of more concern is a combination of erosion, rain and snowmelt and debris flow, especially during the spring months.

“It’s a very dangerous feature in the upland topography in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties,” McClaughry said. “Certain times of the year are more susceptible to landslide events.”

But, could an event as catastrophic as the one in Washington happen here? McClaughry is quick to note that the geology and landscape is much different in Eastern Oregon but doesn’t rule out the possibility.

“We have evidence of decent-sized landslides in all the valleys (in the tri-county area),” he said.

Like Brock, he said the best thing people can do is educate themselves.

“If you live in an area with landslide potential, take measures to protect yourself,” he said. “Educate yourself and know the geology under your feet.”

As far as immediate steps to take in the event of a landslide, those are a little more challenging to nail down, other than having emergency kits readily available.

“Certainly we would emphasize normal preparedness things — being prepared to evacuate quickly and following the guidance of local authorities,” Brock said. “It’s a difficult one to prepare for, it’s a geologic event.”


Contact Kelly Ducote at 541-786-4230 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Kelly on Twitter @lgoDucote.