Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It’s filthy, it’s bone-crushing, and it’s suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.
The press coverage of Saturday’s landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed 24 dead and confirmed missing, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint — and continues. Today’s New York Times makes the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.
Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher — plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. — because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. “It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill,” said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. “You’ve got sewer pipes. You’ve got dirty diapers.”
Not to diminish the cataclysm and the human loss, but for all its fearful power and creepiness, the landslide isn’t much of a killer — at least not in America. According to a Wikipedia chart of major landslides worldwide since 1900, only 11 have struck the United States, including the one in Oso. When you factor out landslides propagated by exploding volcanos (Mount St. Helens), earthquake-tsunamis (Seward, Alaska, and Lituya Bay, Alaska) and hurricanes (Nelson County, Va.), the death count falls very low. Before Oso, fewer than two dozen people had died in all other major U.S. landslides, which you could count on two fingers (Gros Ventre, Wyo., and La Conchita, Calif.).
The rarity and low death counts of landslides make them no less fearsome. Like snow rollers, ice circles, supermoons, ball lightning, sun dogs, mammatus clouds, sun pillars, and other exceptional and mysterious phenomena, the landslide commands our attention and that of journalists. The loss of life — especially corpses that can’t easily be recovered or located — has given the Oso story legs that will likely carry it for weeks. There probably exists somewhere in a mathematician’s imagination a news formula that could predict how and why a story keeps rolling in the news, a topic I recently studied in my column about the alleged “over-coverage” of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a story which is still on Page One.