Reconciling Risk and Suspending Belief

© Phil Eidenberg-Noppe April 6, 2015

An early experience

My father collapsed and died in front of me when I was 15. We were out doing yard work on a sunny weekend in July and he simply collapsed onto the sidewalk. I mention it here at the outset because it was a transformative experience in my young life. It was an early insight about reconciling risk and suspending belief and it has been hard-wired into my consciousness ever since.

He had been sick with a constellation of diseases for a couple of years before, and there was an underlying assumption of serious illness, that is to say there was a risk that he might die. But as anyone who has lost someone close can attest, there is a feeling rooted in hope that, until the time it actually occurs, death is not possible, not plausible, not real. So when the event ultimately comes, there is an even greater feeling of disbelief. It is the kind of feeling you get when someone or something seems to vanish without explanation. Perhaps it is just that none of the rules seem to apply in that moment.

At the time of my father’s death and for a period afterwards, it didn’t seem like the rules applied to me. The experience seems to have left a mark, if not an awareness, of the possibility that something unexpected can happen at any time and in any place. It was at this time that I began a lifelong exploration of how the collective “we” handles risk — that is to say, the possibility that something unexpected (or even somewhat expected) may happen that we were not adequately prepared for and have a hard time reconciling.

Ways of looking at the world

I am a hydrologist and a photographer. I am a hydrologist who has looked at the presence and effects of water on the planet, from the micro-scale perspective of “rill” erosion to the basin-scale perspective of sediment transport and deposition in large watersheds like the Nooksack River Basin. Its presence, absence, movement, innate chemical characteristics, even phase form — solid, liquid, vapor. But mostly, the parameter of flow has been my focus, how water moves and what happens in the process.

When I pick up the camera, it too becomes a process of search, study and discovery; and in the process I have achieved a certain level of training of my eye to my mind and vice versa. I have come to better understand the mechanisms of change or the innate characteristics of things when I examine them through the lens. Again, from small to large/panoramic scale, which is part of what brought me to Oso — but a few items first.

The Oso Landslide (November 2014)

When it comes down to it, the profession of hydrology is ultimately a profession about risk management. It is not often that the study of hydrology simply focuses on acquisition of basic knowledge, but more often hydrologists study how water resources can be put to some “beneficial use”. Water is the most precious commodity that we have on the planet, and risk is involved when we want to do something with, in or around it. I have recently been reflecting on how my understanding of that risk has evolved over the course of my 27-year career working as a hydrologist.

A Narrow Strip of Sand and Water in the Desert

I recall early in my career working on the east end of Long Island, in the Hamptons. This was a period of accelerated growth and development in an area of exclusive and expensive real estate. The resources — soils, wetlands, bays, pine barrens — on the east end of Long Island are particularly fragile. Perhaps most importantly, the water in the area is particularly fragile.

Groundwater has long been a major concern on the east end of Long Island. In one case I recall, the concern was about groundwater underneath a narrow strip of sand approximately 4 miles long and ½ to 1 mile wide. As is the case for the rest of Long Island, the sand was left when the last glacier receded. Water easily seeps into the ground through the sand. At the time, this particular strip of sand was relatively undeveloped. It was a prime beach spot, a prime beach spot in the Hamptons, hence a prime real-estate spot. The question was, if utilities such as a sanitary sewer were extended out to this narrow strip of sand, and that spurred development, would there be a risk to groundwater? It is an unfortunate fact that as land is developed the risk of pollution increases. It was all the more important to be deliberate about development because the groundwater in the area was held within what is called a “sole source aquifer”. That meant that it was the only water that people in that area could use. Once that water was gone, or contaminated, there was no more water. “Progress” fights a hard fight against risk. In this case though, conservation (and common sense) won out, and Napeague and Hither Hills State Parks were ultimately established.

There is a risk inherent in land development in the desert. Where I went to graduate school in Tucson water is scarce and highly valued, and deep wells were historically required to obtain it. So when the prospect of Tucson receiving their previously agreed ration of Colorado River water (e.g. previously agreed through the interstate Colorado River compact of 1922) became possible, most were in support. Coming ironically through a newly constructed open canal subject to the extreme evaporative forces that are present in the desert, the Colorado River water did arrive to the City in 1991. The unfortunate part of the story is that the new water was roundly met with dissatisfaction by the local populace, due mostly to the fact that the water didn’t taste good or look good. This was due to the different chemical characteristics of the water itself and the mobilization of deposits/rust lining water mains and household plumbing. The way to deal with this risk that had become manifest in reality was to put the Colorado River water into the ground through a process called “artificial recharge”. The water was placed in the large dry and sandy riverbeds that cross the city. The recharged water is somewhat purified through the process and the mix of recharged Colorado River water and local groundwater is pumped and distributed to citizens. Of course there is still risk associated with every step of the process — from transporting the water from the Colorado River to pumping the artificially recharged water to the City’s water supply system to what happens in the plumbing in people’s homes. This is just part of the risk inherent in human life in the desert.

A process that may lead to unexpected results

I have been working as a hydrologist in the Pacific Northwest since 1989 and have been employed by public, private, and non-profit entities. Throughout the years, I have been tasked with studying, quantifying, and ultimately advising decision-makers, (including local property owners, City Councils, and Forest Service Rangers) about risk and how to deal with it. I have typically followed a 4-step process relating to risk:

· Study it

· Quantify it

· Communicate it, and

· Make a decision based on it

Every so often, though, the unexpected does occur, and that is where disbelief comes in. There are events that may occur from: 1) human actions, 2) the forces of nature, or 3) a combination of human actions and the forces of nature. All of these events may produce unexpected results. In particularly dramatic cases, a human response to these events is for people to experience a state of disbelief.

Toxic Risks

How many telephone poles line your street?

Working as a consultant on a toxic waste cleanup at a 58-acre timber-creosoting plant on the Willamette River in the early 1990’s, I suited up in a Tyvek protective suit and full-face respirator. At the time I was working there the plant was fully operational, as it had been since 1944. Logs transported onto the site by rail car were temporarily entombed in a large pressurized steel container called a “retort” and impregnated with ACZA (arsenic, chromium, copper, zinc and ammonia) and Creosote. After being shot through with the toxic soup, the logs came rolling out of the other end dripping. Just dripping. Right on the banks of Willamette River. Soils beneath the site were found to be contaminated to a depth of 80 feet in some areas. Sediments in the river adjacent to the site were contaminated to depths of 35 feet below the riverbed.

How many creosoted telephone poles line the streets of your community? Is preserved wood worth the risk to your local river? Or maybe the river can be cleaned up — but at what cost? Then again, how clean is clean? Perhaps it’s a question of risk. I recall a particularly poignant question a worker at the plant on the Willamette asked me, me in my full protective gear and he in his normal (unprotective) work clothes: “Do you really think it’s not safe here?”

Again working as a consultant, this time for the U.S. EPA who had regulatory authority over the U.S. Navy, I reviewed and commented on Remedial Investigation/Feasibility studies of numerous contaminated military sites located throughout the Puget Sound region. The remedial investigation part involved characterizing the pollution: essentially identifying where the contamination came from and where it was going. The Feasibility part involved figuring out how to clean it up. I recall reading page after page of the Remedial Investigation reports containing matter-of-fact descriptions of the history of dumping at Naval facilities –- e.g. “In November of 1956 the remaining contents of four 55-gallon drums of tetrachloroethylene were dumped out of the back door at building number A-45”. It appeared that not only the chemicals but the lands and waters in and around these facilities were viewed as disposable. It also appeared that, particularly at the time the dumping was occurring, people weren’t concerned about risk, whether to ecological or human health.

Disposable land and water?

Managing Flood Hazards

For years I worked with teams of natural scientists and engineers to develop Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plans for river systems in Western Washington — most notably for the Nooksack, Skokomish and Quillayute Rivers and Watersheds. The idea is that, as the name implies, flood hazards can be managed. The thinking and practice about how this is done has evolved over the years.

The early history of flood hazard management, which, with a bit of hubris, was referred to as “Flood Control”, is replete with examples of projects that essentially strong-armed rivers into compliance. The approach typically involved lining riverbanks with rock “riprap” to limit erosion and associated river movement, as well as construction of riverbank levees to keep floodwater out of valuable farmlands or subsequent land uses such as industrial and commercial development. These approaches almost universally caused greater impacts in the long term than the benefits provided in the short term. Banks lined with riprap and levees lose ecological function — including losses of niches for plants and animals that depend on the food, microclimates and other characteristics of natural “riparian zones”. Banks lined with riprap and levees also often cause changes in the physics of water flowing in streams and rivers, with unintended consequences like increases in erosion of unprotected streambanks across the river and/or downstream from the altered reaches. The effects of these approaches are still occurring, and many of these projects are still in place.

The more “enlightened” approaches involved in modern Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management employ a suite of “structural” and “non-structural” solutions. Modern structural solutions involve engineered projects that provide more leeway for natural processes to occur. Examples include levees, where they must be built to protect vital infrastructure, that are set a distance back from the riverbank. Setback levees allow rivers to move more naturally. Modern solutions also incorporate natural materials. Examples involve use of plant-based materials to stabilize eroding banks and restoration of regional wetlands, which are nature’s own flood storage facilities.

Unconstrained rivers move naturally

Regulations and Risk

Non-structural solutions in flood hazard management are typically aimed at changing human behavior. Most notably, these involve guidelines and limitations on where and how people can build in floodplains (areas next to rivers that are inundated with water during floods). In Washington State, these requirements are codified in “Floodplain Ordinances”, and “Critical Areas Ordinances”. Much of the focus of the regulations is on areas that might be inundated during the 100-year flood.

The term “100-year flood” has to be one of the most poorly understood concepts hydrologists have ever foisted on humankind. It simply means that every year, there is a one in a hundred chance that a flood of a certain magnitude will occur. The fact that a flood of that magnitude occurred last year has no effect on whether a flood of that magnitude will occur this year. Last year there was a one in a hundred chance, this year there’s a one in a hundred chance, and next year there will be a one in a hundred chance. It is all about how we communicate risk.

Critical areas are lands with natural hazards or lands that support certain unique, fragile or valuable resource areas. Lands designated as “critical” include areas at high risk for erosion, landslides, earthquakes or flooding; or wetlands or lands adjoining streams, rivers and other water bodies. I recall working for a local municipality leading a team and authoring the city’s new critical areas ordinance. I remember the discussion we had about geologic hazard areas after having diligently created maps reflecting what was known about these areas within the city. The discussion involved how, when, and where the input of a scientist or engineer hired by a property owner or developer might apply.

The definition of “geologic hazard area” that is now in that city’s ordinance is:

“Geologic hazard areas means lands or areas characterized by geologic, hydrologic, and topographic conditions that render them susceptible to varying degrees of potential risk of landslides, erosion, or seismic or volcanic activity; and areas characterized by geologic and hydrologic conditions that make them vulnerable to contamination of groundwater supplies through infiltration of contaminants to aquifers.”

The ordinance also describes what criteria the city will use to determine whether development will be allowed in these areas:

“Alterations of geological hazard areas or associated buffers may only occur for activities that meet the following criteria:

1. Will not increase the existing threat of the geological hazard to adjacent properties.

2. Will not adversely impact other critical areas.

3. Are designed so that the hazard to the project is eliminated or mitigated to a level equal to or less than pre-development conditions.

4. Are certified as safe as designed under anticipated conditions by a qualified engineer or geologist, licensed in the state of Washington.”

Item 4 is particularly interesting. What are anticipated conditions? How does a qualified engineer or geologist determine that the activity is “safe”? Having been involved in this technical process myself, I can tell you that one small part of the process the qualified engineer or geologist follows is to employ what is known as a “factor of safety”. That is, there is a figure arrived at after all the calculations are done, and the numerically calculated risk is doubled or tripled. The doubling or tripling are factors of safety of two or three. Or it could be that the design itself developed to withstand the calculated risk is doubled or tripled — adding two or three times more rock, more rebar, more concrete, going deeper, going bigger. Or it could be that the calculated risk is doubled or tripled AND the design is doubled or tripled. Of course, the result is balanced against cost considerations. But the “factor of safety,” for better or worse, is a part of the process that the expert completes.

On more than one occasion, I have seen qualified experts, whether hydrologist, hydro-geologist, geologist, engineer, or geotechnical engineer disagree on whether specific actions should occur in Critical Areas. I have seen these disagreements influenced by money and/or politics.

Relationships with the land and water

There is a long history of people having a strong relationship with the land and water in Western Washington. Perhaps the most iconic example of this is found in the famous speech by Chief Seattle in 1854:

“Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch…And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”

Perhaps the most overarching statements about relationships with land and water attributed to Chief Seattle are:

“The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves”

With a strong relationship to land and water comes a strong sense of stewardship. Stewardship involves an ongoing commitment and active involvement with the resource. People may differ on exactly how this is done, and it makes for many a heated meeting. I have worked with many environmental stewards — from Christmas tree farmers in the Skokomish Valley, to gravel miners on the Nooksack, to tribal staff on the Stillaguamish to many watershed councils staffed by passionate and thoughtful folks from all walks of life. While my opinions and objectives may have differed from others, I have never doubted their passion and willingness to fight for their beliefs. The art of it all ultimately comes down to how people’s beliefs and passions are balanced with the uncertainty inherent in environmental science and policy. Uncertainty inevitably equates to risk and risk is a challenging subject to deal with, particularly with groups of stakeholders.


Most everyone remembers where they were when they heard about 9/11. For me, one of the strongest memories is of the palpable sense of disbelief that I felt from other people in the days following the event. I particularly recall being at a memorial vigil at the Seattle Center where people were waiting silently in a long line to place flowers on the cement slopes leading down to the international fountain. The country was at a standstill, in an altered state, characterized by uncertainty, grief, loss, and perhaps mostly disbelief. I still am absolutely astounded when I see footage of people running from the massive rolling wave of debris in lower Manhattan. It is too much like some science fiction or disaster movie that has become real. I am still gripped by a feeling of disbelief when I think about the event.

I also recall how the period of disbelief of 9/11 gave way to the country going through an extended analysis of how it happened — ranging from the composition of the steel beams in the towers to the flight training and countries of origin of the terrorists. The media has become particularly adept at this process, and it sometimes feels like we are flooded by information from all corners. It didn’t take long after September 11, 2001 for the feelings of grief and disbelief and the search for answers to be subsumed by feelings of anger and a drive for retribution. Ultimately, there appeared to be a communal gut drive to bring the perpetrators to justice.

I bring up 9/11 here because never before had I been caught in such a prolonged state of communal disbelief — a feeling of: how in the world is this even possible? To be caught in this state for an extended period is very unsettling indeed, and I believe the human psyche seeks to replace this unsettling feeling with more readily understandable (and sometimes unconstructive) emotions and actions.

OSO — Before the 2014 Landslide

I was working as a hydrologist at the Forest Service when the 2014 Oso Slide occurred. In fact, prior to March 2014 I had studied the slide for three reasons: 1) it was the location of previous landslides, 2) it was within my responsibilities to study and manage risk associated with landslides in the northern half of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, including landslides in the Stillaguamish Watershed, and 3) some of the structures that had historically been built at the Oso site on the North Fork Stillaguamish River were being proposed at another landslide area on National Forest Land on the South Fork Stillaguamish River.

Oso: Pre-March 2014 Landslide

I visited the slide area multiple times in 2012 and 2013, both as part of my official duties and out of personal interest.

During my visits to the site, I accessed the river through private property. The first time I visited, there was a caretaker doing yard work on the property and the house was vacant. He said it was fine to access the river through the property.

One of the next times I visited was with a hydrologist and fish biologist from the Forest Service Regional Assistance Team for Streams (“RATS Team”) in 2013. This time there were signs prominently posted saying “No Trespassing”. I really wanted the RATS team to see the site and the work previously completed there. I saw people out in the yard and approached them. The pointed questions I got from a man who appeared to be the new owner were: “Who are you? Are you with the government?”, and “What do you want?” After some discussion involving my explanation that I had no governmental jurisdiction in this area since it was off national forest, he invited us to access the river and view the site. He joined us.

It turns out he was a retired Marine, indeed suspicious of government, but also very interested in restoration and stewardship of his property — removal of invasive knotweed, planting of conifers in the riparian zone. He and his wife were also interested in building a greenhouse to grow trees for planting on the property. I told him since it was off National Forest I couldn’t help him directly, but could put him in touch with other groups who could. I later revisited the site with the Darrington Forest Service Ranger. The Ranger and I had a very frank and humor-filled conversation with him. I later arranged contacts for a local tribal restoration group to work with him on restoration.

OSO — The 2014 Landslide

Oso: Post-March 2014 Landslide

The Oso Landslide occurred on March 22, 2014. Here are a few facts about the event (sources: The SR 530 Landslide Commission Final Report — December 15, 2014, Snohomish County SR 530 Slide website:

· The landslide occurred on March 22, 2014 at 10:37 A.M.

· It covered an area of approximately one square mile in less than one minute, with debris deposits ranging in height from 15 to 75 feet

· State Route 530 was inundated with mud and debris [this highway is a critical transportation link for the mountain community of Darrington]

· The Washington State Emergency Operations Center was activated for 38 days, the longest activation in at least the last 30 years.

· A declaration of “major disaster” was made by President Barack Obama on April 2, 2014.

· More than 900 local, state, and federal personnel and trained and untrained volunteers, contractors, families and neighbors were involved in the search, rescue, and recovery operations

· Fourty-three people died and more than 40 homes and structures were destroyed.

· The Washington State Department of Transportation reopened SR 530 to two-way traffic on Friday, June 20, 2014

· The last body was removed from the landslide area on July 22, 2014, four months after the slide occurred.

OSO — After the 2014 Landslide

Shortly after the landslide occurred, I read in the newspaper that the retired Marine I had met, along with his wife, their granddaughter and her fiancé were among the missing. I also read the following about his daughter:

“[She] finds herself thinking about her father’s bellybuttons. When she was a child, he told her that he had three, but only later did she learn that two were scars from bullet wounds from Vietnam, where he served as Marine.

Her father, as well as her mother, niece and niece’s fiancé, were at her father’s house in Oso when the slide came. All are missing. But his toughness gives her hope.

‘If anyone could make it, he could,’ she said. ‘He’d find a way.’ ”

I later learned that all four members of the family had perished in the landslide.

Several months after the landslide occurred I had an opportunity to visit and view the Oso landslide area. As much as I had followed the story out of professional and personal interest, it was difficult to grasp what I saw. The extent of the devastation was overwhelming, and the idea that such a scale of devastation occurred within such a miniscule amount of time was stunning. It was simply unbelievable.

Much has happened since the Oso Landslide occurred. On the ground, recovery operations have been completed. A “temporary berm” was constructed by the County and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flood impacts to SR 530 in the short term after the slide. Cleanup, stabilization and restoration activities have occurred. A two-lane highway now supports traffic between the communities of Darrington and Arlington, Washington. At least two lawsuits have been filed by families of slide victims against government entities.

My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their loved ones in this catastrophe, as well as all of those people who so bravely worked under unbelievable circumstances at the site in the direct aftermath of the event.


In looking back over my career as well as my life experience, I’ve come to accept that most anything is possible at any time. This is not a perspective of fearfulness, but a realization that I/we are constantly exposed to risks of all kinds, many of which come from forces that we do not know and cannot predict. Simply identifying and studying risk and putting in place practices that will minimize detrimental effects is no guarantee that damaging or deadly events will not take place.

I’ve also come to better understand what I’ve referred to here as the “state of disbelief”. It seems to be a state of consciousness, sometimes a component of physiological shock, that forces a person to face the immediate circumstances and consequences of events. The nature of the immediate circumstances and consequences might appear to have developed without being constrained by a readily understandable process of cause and effect. In the immediacy of the situation there also appears to be a lack of a higher rationale, an answer to the greater question of why.

Because being in a state of disbelief can be debilitating and “stops people in their tracks,” the transition from this state is often accompanied by a drive to do “something.” It often seems that it is precisely the lack of higher rationale characterizing the state of disbelief that causes the person/group experiencing disbelief to seek some moral, ethical, or justice-oriented answers in the aftermath of catastrophic events. Answers are sometimes sought through lawsuits, military actions or other responses. These secondary actions often either extend or expand the damages that have already occurred — be they physical, monetary, emotional, or otherwise.

Following my father’s death, I engaged in what might be characterized as crazy, risky behaviors. Perhaps I was in a prolonged state of disbelief, perhaps I was coping with an alternate reality, or perhaps it was adolescent behavior. Most likely it was combination of all three. I do recall having strong feelings at the time.

Following 9/11, the country shifted from a state of disbelief into a state of war, driven by a desire to bring the perpetrators to justice. We have been engaged in war ever since. We now stare at videos of beheadings and other ghastly events with renewed disbelief. How is this possible? Who is responsible? What action can/should we take? Judgment abounds.

The repercussions of the Oso landslide are still unfolding. I can only hope that for those still caught in a prolonged state of disbelief there is some healing underway.

In recent years I have come to believe that one “treatment” for disbelief is mindfulness. While mindfulness has become very popular recently, it is perhaps the most simple but powerful state of consciousness that has been known and practiced by humans. Mindfulness in the form of meditation has been known and practiced for a long, long time. I believe that the concept and practice of mindfulness is compatible with the idea that most anything is possible at any time — the practice of walking through the world with an awareness that the ground could shift suddenly, literally or figuratively, changing our landscape. In the immediacy of the event, perhaps the best approach is to embrace awareness, leaving judgement for a later time.

Mindfulness requires nothing more than taking in what your senses are telling you. Simple, unvarnished awareness. Intentionally being aware at the present without judgment or attachment. It is not a rejection of thought or feeling, but a situationally appropriate mix of both. And if you can balance thoughts and emotions in the right mix in a timely fashion, the ultimate outcome might just be wisdom. And how better to proceed with your life than from a position of wisdom? Wisdom, in turn, may lead to acceptance — acceptance and reconciliation in the idea that tragic events do occur, that we do experience difficult and often uncomfortable emotional states, but all of this is inherent in the arc of life and the relationships we have with each other and the planet.

[Thanks to Danielle Eidenberg-Noppe, Kelly Riggle Hower, Katie Morse, Jared Michonski, and Kristine Johnson for reviewing and commenting on earlier versions of this essay.]

Phil’s Photos:

Phil Eidenberg-Noppe is showing his photographs from the OSO Landslide at the following locations in 2015:

· Everett Public Library — April 22 through June 15

· Federal Way Regional Library — June 16 through August 31

· North Bend Library — September 1 through September 30

· Edmonds Community College — October 1 through December 7

Some of Phil’s photos can be viewed on his FLICKR site:


Please consider making a donation to help the Oso Community through the following organizations:

· The Red Cross

· United Way

· Cascade Valley Hospital

· Oso Fire Association

For more information about how to help:



Watch an interview with Phil recorded by Edmonds Community College in the summer of 2015-



Surviving Progress-


Gary Snyder — Turtle Island and other books

John McPhee — The Control of Nature


SR 530 Landslide Commission-


Stillaguamish Watershed Council-

Snohomish County SR 530 Website-