'Unless you’re actually there, you don’t get the total devastation'

Poulsbo chaplain Ken Bailey spent three days in the mudslide area of Oso, on the Stillaguamish River, and was struck by what he saw. “Many rescue workers were not prepared for what they found,” he said.  - Ken Bailey / Special to the Herald
Poulsbo chaplain Ken Bailey spent three days in the mudslide area of Oso, on the Stillaguamish River, and was struck by what he saw. “Many rescue workers were not prepared for what they found,” he said.
— image credit: Ken Bailey / Special to the Herald

OSO — Chaplain Ken Bailey of Poulsbo drove east on Highway 530 and entered hell on earth March 27 at 11 a.m.

It had been five days since an 800-foot hill above the Stillaguamish River calved, sending a 30-foot-high tsunami of mud into the Steelhead Drive neighborhood and creating a debris field of one square mile.

And on this day, workers searched mudscoop by mudscoop, step by step, for survivors.

Many who had volunteered for rescue work found themselves in the role of recovery work.

Bailey’s first job upon arrival: Ministering to two Transportation Department workers who had just found the body of a baby.

“Many rescue workers were not prepared for what they found,” Bailey said after returning to Poulsbo. “There’s no way that the pictures or the TV … unless you’re actually there, you don’t get the total devastation.”

As of the morning of April 2, a total of 30 people are known to have died as a result of the slide, The Daily Herald reported. Of those, 27 had been identified. Thirteen were still presumed missing. In a letter to President Obama, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote that 40 homes were destroyed and up to 30 families left in need of long- and short-term housing.

Bailey was struck by the careful, methodical pace of the work on the highway. First, a front-end loader removes large debris. Then, a smaller loader scoops the remaining mud and spreads it out so it can be looked through carefully. That mud is then scooped up again and removed. Then, the equipment moves forward and begins again.

Of 6,000 feet of Highway 530 that was buried by mud in the slide, about 700 feet had been cleared by April 1.

And that’s just on the highway. Out where homes and barns once stood, searchers move slowly, carefully. “You step into a spot, and all of a sudden you need to be rescued,” he said.

Bailey said he’s heard this rescue operation compared to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, only worse. “Because of the mud, you can’t find houses, you can’t find voids. You can’t find anything.”

Bailey, who stayed at his daughter’s house in nearby Lake Stevens, was in Oso for three days “from awake until sleep,” ministering to and counseling first responders. He is volunteer chaplain for Poulsbo Fire Department, Poulsbo Police Department, Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department, Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management, Washington State Patrol, and state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bailey was one of six chaplains called to Oso by the regional office of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. He worked a three-day shift and then was relieved, and said he’d return if he’s called.

He said the chaplains’ roles in Oso is ministry — meeting needs — not evangelism. “We’re there to help them. They’re going through a hard time. We help them cope with what’s happening to them today, and how they can get through it.”

What he tells people about why tragedies like Oso occur: “Tragedy happens. But God is in control. God sees things from a different perspective than we do. We see the here and now, he sees the eternal. If we live one year or 500 years, that’s nothing compared to eternity.”

What he tells people who want to help the relief effort in Oso: “Pray for the people, their families, and the extended family – the community. The community is one family and they are all hurting.

“Pray for the first responders — for comfort, endurance, safety, that they be ministered for their needs.

“If you want to get involved, go through the right channels. Be a part of the structure of recovery.” He recommends contacting the American Red Cross for information on how to help.

Chaplains who respond to disasters are volunteers. To help defray their expenses, go to The Charteris Foundation website,

Kitsap residents who assisted in the Oso relief effort include:

— Jake Gillanders, Poulsbo Fire Department, EMPACT Northwest Disaster Team, March 31 to April 9.

— Ken LeMay II, battalion chief, North Kitsap Fire & Rescue, March 24-30.

— Nancy LeMay, Kitsap County CenCom, March 24-30.

— Chelsea Smith, Bainbridge Island Ambulance, EMPACT Northwest Disaster Team, March 31 to April 9.

— Dennis and Ellen Wood of Bremerton delivered baked goods, bottled water and protein bars to volunteers in Oso, March 31. The Woods also delivered numerous stuffed animals donated by Jordan Barrie, 5, of Silverdale for “children who are sad.”



Chaplain Ken Bailey, in ball cap, talks to emergency crews at the landslide area in Oso. Bailey worked a three-day shift, ministering to rescue workers. Submitted photo

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