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When hazard avoidance is not an option: Lessons learned from monitoring the postdisaster Oso landslide, USA

June 18, 2021

On 22 March 2014, a massive, catastrophic landslide occurred near Oso, Washington, USA, sweeping more than 1 km across the adjacent valley flats and killing 43 people. For the following 5 weeks, hundreds of workers engaged in an exhaustive search, rescue, and recovery effort directly in the landslide runout path. These workers could not avoid the risks posed by additional large-scale slope collapses. In an effort to ensure worker safety, multiple agencies cooperated to swiftly deploy a monitoring and alerting system consisting of sensors, automated data processing and web-based display, along with defined communication protocols and clear calls to action for emergency management and search personnel. Guided by the principle that an accelerating landslide poses a greater threat than a steadily moving or stationary mass, the system was designed to detect ground motion and vibration using complementary monitoring techniques. Near real-time information was provided by continuous GPS, seismometers/geophones, and extensometers. This information was augmented by repeat-assessment techniques such as terrestrial and aerial laser scanning and time-lapse photography. Fortunately, no major additional landsliding occurred. However, we did detect small headscarp failures as well as slow movement of the remaining landslide mass with the monitoring system. This was an exceptional response situation and the lessons learned are applicable to other landslide disaster crises. They underscore the need for cogent landslide expertise and ready-to-deploy monitoring equipment, the value of using redundant monitoring techniques with distinct goals, the benefit of clearly defined communication protocols, and the importance of continued research into forecasting landslide behavior to allow timely warning.