RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And on his way to Asia, the president will make a stop in Washington state. There, he will view the destruction from a massive landslide north of Seattle in the town of Oso. Obama will meet with those affected by that disaster and first responders. It was a month ago that the hillside gave way and wiped out a rural neighborhood. Crews have been looking for the remains of victims ever since. The official death toll now stands at 41. NPR's Martin Kaste visited the site, and has this update.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's been a month, but this valley still looks like a muddy bombing range. The great mounds of dirt and broken trees are dwarfed by the 600-foot-tall failed hillside where they came from. You see wheels sticking out of the mud in random places, detached from their cars. There's a house that looks like it's been through a trash compactor. National guardsmen gingerly climb over it, probing the gaps with sticks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't bang on the metal thing. You'll pull another metal thing up.
KASTE: This is the eastern edge of the landslide, where rescuers believe they'll find the bodies of the last few missing people.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, oh, hold on.
KASTE: Guardsman Jason Muzzy watches his colleagues wading through the receding water.
JASON MUZZY: We're just seeing if anything's going to stirred up, and probe and just feeling around underneath the water level with their feet.
KASTE: The mood at the site has lightened somewhat now that the search for the victims is almost over. But the recovery of this valley has barely begun. The most pressing issue is the highway, State Route 530.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)
KASTE: Sean Whitcomb is a public information officer on loan from the Seattle Police.
SEAN WHITCOMB: Right now, we're walking on SR-530. It's covered by about, you know, three inches of mud with the consistency of brownie mix. It's just incredible. And they keep pushing it off the road, and it keeps filling back in.
KASTE: Farther on, the highway is still under a dozen feet or more of mud and debris. The state Department of Transportation says the road will take months to clear, and maybe longer to rebuild. Alongside the usual yellow ribbons for the slide's victims, you're starting to see protest signs calling for speedier action. Aaron Hall put up one such sign at his family's roadside nursery business, just west of the slide zone.
AARON HALL: As you can see, it's like a dead end. We don't have any through traffic.
KASTE: The main concern is for the town of Darrington, over on the east side of the slide. People there have been cut off from jobs and family, unless they spend hours on a roundabout route. But even once the highway is restored, things here will be different. For instance, the destroyed homes may never be rebuilt.
HALL: I think everybody would like to see some kind of memorial there, from what I've heard. And as far as building there, everyone's saying no way, you know. We shouldn't have been allowed to build there in the first place.
KASTE: That question - why were people allowed to build there - has been simmering in the background for a month. That location has a history of landslides, the last one in 2006. So far, county officials haven't said much about this. They called it an inappropriate topic while people were still missing. But with the search about to end, the question will become unavoidable.
DAVID MONTGOMERY: I don't think it's really fair to sort of second-guess whether or not people should have been able to see the potential for such a large slide at this site.
KASTE: David Montgomery is a prominent geomorphologist at the University of Washington and he's author of books such as "The Rocks Don't Lie." He says, sure, there were landslides there before, but none like this.
MONTGOMERY: It's huge. I never imagined that the hillside on the far side of the valley could actually come across and wipe out the highway in under a couple of minutes. That never crossed my mind, as a geologist going up and down that slope.
KASTE: He says Oso is a chance for geologist to learn more about big slides.
MONTGOMERY: But how does that information get used?
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
MONTGOMERY: I can (unintelligible).
KASTE: But he's interrupted by his phone. It's yet another call from lawyers, asking him to be an expert witness in another one of the lawsuits coming out of Oso. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.