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Originally published April 22, 2014 at 8:39 PM | Page modified April 23, 2014 at 5:17 PM

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Obama says Oso’s strength ‘should inspire us all’

President Obama flew over the site of the March 22 mudslide in a Marine helicopter, met privately with the families of victims in Oso and then spoke at the Oso Fire Department.

Seattle Times staff


OSO, Snohomish County —

President Obama spent more than an hour comforting the families of the dead and missing from last month’s mudslide, traveling Tuesday to the devastated community “just to let you know that the country is thinking about all of you.”

The president’s visit to meet the families and thank first-responders was gratefully and graciously accepted by the community — which politely overlooked the president’s mispronunciation of the town’s name during his remarks.

Obama, on his way to Tokyo, flew into Everett’s Paine Field in Air Force One, then flew over the site of the March 22 mudslide in a Marine helicopter. He met privately with the families of victims at the Oso Community Chapel.

Obama then met and addressed local officials, residents and first-responders at the Oso Fire Department.

The president said he was awed by the effort that has gone into the response and grueling monthlong search.

“We’ve all been inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together and shown the love and support that they have for each other in ways large and small,” Obama said. “And to see the strength in adversity of this community I think should inspire all of us, because this is also what America is all about.

“Michelle and I grieve with you,” he said. “And we’re very, very proud of all of you.”

Accompanying the president was Gov. Jay Inslee, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Rep. Suzan DelBene and local officials, including Snohomish County Executive John Lovick and the mayors of Darrington and Arlington, the towns that bookend the slide.

The president’s visit was punctuated by the announcement from the state’s congressional delegation of the release of $7.5 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help Snohomish County absorb the costs of one of the state’s worst natural disasters.

The half-mile-wide slide came down a month ago, burying dozens of homes and state Highway 530 in shattered debris up to 70 feet deep. The slide changed the course of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and swept away entire neighborhoods. Forty-one people were killed and two more remain missing.

As the president flew over the debris pile Tuesday afternoon, an American flag hung at half-staff from a broken tree, and huge yellow excavators continued to carefully dig through the wreckage.

Reporters were not allowed in as Obama met for an hour and 15 minutes with the families at the chapel. Witnesses said he entered through a side door and asked everyone to remain seated. He then made his way around the room to personally speak with those there.

Among the group were the three brothers of Steve Hadaway, 53, one of the two people still missing. He had been installing a satellite dish on the home of Amanda Lennick when the slide hit.

Lennick also died, along with two other workmen who had been at her home when the mudslide barreled down the hill.

“I was worried it was going to be in and out, and kind of a smoke screen, but it definitely was not,” Frank Hadaway, 51, of Puyallup, said of the president’s visit. “He greeted everybody, and talked to every single person. It was pretty unbelievable.”

Frank Hadaway was joined by his brother, John, 49, also from Puyallup, and Bryon, 59, of Concrete, Skagit County.

“This was like a big family today,” said John Hadaway. “He did not miss talking to one single person, and you could tell it wasn’t phony. It was very heartfelt.”

Afterward, the families were loaded onto a yellow school bus and driven away.

Frank Hadaway said it was a comfort not just to meet the president but to spend time with so many people struggling with the same loss.

Afterward, Obama moved on to the Oso Fire Department, where he hugged Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert, then shook hands with the rescue workers, patting a few on the shoulder and thanking them.

Obama, dressed in light khakis, hiking boots and a blue windbreaker, stood at a podium roped off with fire hoses and flanked by firetrucks. Behind him, a banner read “Oso Strong.”

Several times during his remarks, he pronounced the name of the community “Ah-so,” rather than “Oh-so.”

“It’s good to see (Obama) here,’’ said Norm Peterson, who lives a few miles from Oso. “I’m glad he did it. We need to keep it in the news. There’s more to be done.’’

When Obama’s motorcade left the Oso Fire Department, the president waved and the crowd cheered. MacKenzie Rogers, 9, was thrilled. She got out of school just for that brief moment.

Jason Brunner lost his sister Summer Raffo, 36, in the slide while she was driving on Highway 530 on her way to shoe a horse. He volunteered at the site and has anguished over the loss.

While Brunner called Obama “a very nice man,” he said, “I would like to have seen him out here earlier.’’

According to a media pool report, the evidence of the impact of the month-old disaster was still fresh during the president’s helicopter flyover, with a swath of mud and debris covering what was once the Steelhead Haven community.

Ripped-up trees littered the landscape, and the path of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish was altered. A one-mile section of the state highway is covered in mud and debris.

Tolbert, the Arlington mayor, earlier praised the president for his quick approval of a federal disaster declaration, authorizing the expenditure of federal funds to help those hurt by the slide.

“We understand this was one of the fastest tracks that’s ever been done on,” she said.

Tolbert said those who have lost loved ones in the slide feel comforted by the president’s willingness to meet with them in person.

Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter, Jack Broom, Jim Brunner, Nancy Bartley, Jennifer Sullivan and Katherine Long contributed to this report.

Mike Carter: or 206-464-3706

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