Small-town Washington state mayor finds new role after mudslide

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 30, 2014 7:12 AM

By Jonathan Kaminsky

DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Days after a Washington state mudslide left dozens dead and missing, Dan Rankin stood in a high school gymnasium and hugged tight a teenage girl reeling from the loss of her sister.

Before the March 22 disaster, Rankin's main tasks as mayor of the small logging town of Darrington included overseeing town council meetings and resolving property line disputes in the community of about 1,350 people.

But since the mudslide about 10 miles west of town, Rankin's job has been transformed into that of comforting the grieving and articulating their anguish to the outside world.

"That scar on the mountain will never heal nor will the scar in our hearts ever heal," Rankin, 52, told reporters.

The unofficial body count rose to 28 on Saturday, with the official tally of those killed now 18 based on bodies extricated and identified by medical examiners. But the count of missing dropped to 30 from 90.

In the week since a chunk of rain-soaked hillside 1,500 feet long tumbled onto a river near the tiny community of Oso, smothering a state road and swallowing up dozens of homes, Rankin's new role symbolizes the changed reality for many in the area northeast of Seattle.

Along with those who lost their homes and relatives, nearly everyone in Darrington is mourning a friend or acquaintance lost in the disaster, and usually more than one.

They have also, for the foreseeable future, lost the main artery, Highway 530, connecting them to other communities.

"We try to hold ourselves together to help each other, and this community is incredible, but it has been really hard," said Marshann Wehrli, a deli worker at Darrington's grocery store.


At nightly town hall meetings attended by hundreds and held in the high school gym, Rankin, dressed typically in a lumberjack shirt and blue jeans, has pledged assistance, shed tears, hugged the bereaved and opened the microphone to anyone with a grievance.

At the Friday night meeting, attended by both U.S. senators from the state, two U.S. representatives and the state's secretary of transportation, all of whom pledged their unstinting support, the largest ovation was reserved for Rankin.

"I want my town to be whole and well and I want them to stop hurting and I want them to have the things that we need," Rankin said after the meeting. "I feel so humbled, because I don't feel like I'm doing enough."

As the full toll of the disaster comes into focus, Rankin's constituents, like the mayor himself, are beginning to absorb a new reality in which great loss mingles with more mundane hardships.

Lou Kitz, an airplane mechanic who lives in Darrington, is among those who has seen his half-hour commute to his job in the town of Arlington increase by over an hour each way because of the washout of Highway 530.

His wife, Roxann Kitz, said the extra money spent on gasoline would leave them stretched thin, and could compel him to stay a couple nights a week with friends on the other side of the washout.

"We're a one-income family," she said. "We were struggling to get by as it was."

For Rankin, who spent years as a logger before sore knees led him to buy his own sawmill, the mudslide has ushered in a routine that revolves around ensuring supplies get to rescuers and the displaced and meeting the daily needs of townspeople.

It has also brought changes closer to home.

After his friends' home was flooded after the mudslide, he put them up in the house just up the hill from his own, where his mother lived before dying last year.

"She was my neighbor. So I have neighbors again," the mayor said.

For how long?

"As long as it takes," he said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Carey Gillam and Peter Cooney)