Volunteers standing around mudslide memorial“In the world of University Extension where we offer an array of programs designed to meet a community’s needs, it is second nature to be on the lookout for opportunities to implement them. In this instance, however, the team set out to do exactly the opposite: understand the complexities of the needs first, then design or modify a program to meet that need.”

On March 22, 2014, a catastrophic landslide devastated a rural region in northwest Washington. A hillside gave way, burying an entire neighborhood, taking 43 lives, and temporarily closing State Highway 530, the physical and economic lifeline for the area. Carrying a wall of mud and debris, it destroyed 49 homes and structures; creating a slide zone nearly a mile wide. In the aftermath, what emerged were resilient and interdependent communities with a shared goal of growing their economies while preserving quality of life. The events of that day could have left a region totally devastated but instead they served as a catalyst for economic revitalization efforts, and spurred Washington State University (WSU) to explore how it supports communities in moving forward after a disaster.

Immediately after the slide, WSU’s President, the late Elson Floyd, committed University resources to assist with recovery efforts. Instead of focusing on mounting an emergency response, WSU Extension turned its attention toward long-term recovery strategies and formed the interdisciplinary SR 530 Mudslide Recovery Team. Co-lead by Snohomish County Extension and the Division of Governmental Studies and Services, the Team included members from the WSU Extension’s three units: Community and Economic Development, Youth and Family, and Agriculture and Natural Resources; the WSU Energy Office; WSU Everett; and communication experts from WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences – all with diverse experience and backgrounds. The Team made a foundational commitment to focus not simply on what the University had to offer, but to concentrate on the immediate, short-term, and long-term needs of the communities. By keeping the communities’ needs central to their work, the Team asked community leaders, “What do you need?” instead of telling them, “Here’s what we’re going to do to help you.”

In the world of university extension where we offer an array of programs designed to meet a community’s needs, it is second nature to be on the lookout for opportunities to implement them. In this instance, however, the team set out to do exactly the opposite: understand the complexities of the needs first, then design or modify a program to meet that need. It is important to note that WSU Extension was known to, and valued by, the communities through the legacy programs and activities of the local County Extension Office; however, many of the resources on the Mudslide Recovery Team were new and included regional specialists and faculty located on WSU’s main campus three hundred miles away. As the needs of the community evolved after the landslide, so did the composition of the Team.

Read full article: When Disaster Strikes, Extension Responds – Extension Asks Communities, “What do you need?”

Originally written by: Christina Sanders, Martha Aitken and Monica Babine