Washington landslide: Obama vows government 'is not going anywhere'

Photo provided by Washington State National Guard
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 7:00am

Calling their grit, resiliency and sense of community an inspiration to all Americans, President Barack Obama promised Tuesday that those impacted by last month's deadly landslide in Washington won't be forgotten -- least of all by the federal government.

Speaking in Oso, a small community about 60 miles northeast of Seattle that was ground zero for disaster, Obama outlined the ways the government has already helped and will continue to do so. He said that he wanted to visit the area to show support for "families who are searching for loved ones (and) families who have lost everything."

"I just wanted to let you know that the country is thinking about all of you, and have throughout this tragedy," the President said. "We're not going anywhere. We'll be here as long as it takes."

Obama spoke exactly one month the rain-saturated hillside along the Stillaguamish River gave way, unleashing walls of mud that swallowed up roads and homes in and around Oso.

First responders, Washington National Guard members and volunteers quickly converged on the traumatic scene, digging through mud, logs and debris 70 feet thick in some places hoping to find the missing.

Authorities on Monday put the death toll from the landslide at 41, though that number could rise as the search continues.

The President noted that while few knew of Oso before last month, many since have "been inspired by the incredible way that they community has come together and shown love and support that they have for other in ways big and small." That might include risking their lives volunteering to find neighbors, providing a meal to those on the front lines or offering up chain saws or rain jackets.

"One resident said, 'We're Oso, and we just do it,' " Obama said after touring the damage and meeting with various people involved in the search-and-rescue operations as well as relatives whose loved ones died.

The debris field is full of toxic sludge, including human waste and toxic chemicals from households, oil and gas, according to Lt. Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department. During the rescue efforts, some workers have come down with dysentery.

The work seems never-ending, and the piles of debris and muck remain high a month after the mudslide.

But thanks to workers' efforts, water that was 6 feet deep has now drained, making it easier for heavy equipment to navigate the still tricky terrain.

One spruce tree that remained standing after the mudslide is now a memorial to the victims and a source of strength to the workers.

Obama came to Washington state on the way to a four-country tour to Asia. He will stop in Malaysia, where the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its scores of passengers remains unsolved, and South Korea, where a ferry full of high schoolers collapsed last week.

The President didn't refer to either of those disasters in his comments Tuesday. But he did laud the response of those in and around Oso for symbolizing what is best his own country.

"This is ... what America is all about," Obama said. "When times get tough, we look out for each other. We get each others' backs. And we recover, and we build, and we come back stronger."

CNN's Faith Karimi and Ana Cabrera contributed to this report.

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