Saturday, July 9, 2011

America's Worst Avalanche Disaster

On March 1, 1910, a powerful avalanche roared down upon two snow-bound trains in Wellington, Washington, killing 96 people in what has proven to be the worst avalanche disaster in U.S. history.

In The White Cascade, Gary Krist provides an intriguing historical account of the event, which occurred just west of Stevens Pass during an epic multiday storm in the Cascade Mountains.   As is almost always the case in any major disaster, a host of natural and societal factors contributed to the tragedy.  A storm of such duration and intensity had never before been experienced by the Great Northern Railway, the slopes above Wellington had recently been burned and deforested, and conventional wisdom suggested that the stranded trains were located in an area that was relatively safe based on past (but clearly limited) experience.

There was also overconfidence in the technology of the day.  As concluded by Krist, "It was...a time when mankind's technological reach had profoundly exceeded its grasp, when safety regulations and innovations in fail-safe communications and operations technologies had not yet caught up with the ambitious new standards of speed and efficiency required by American Big Business."

The trains had been stranded in the Cascades for several days.  The powerful rotary snowplows owned by the Great Northern Railway simply could not deal with a storm of this magnitude and the trains became stranded in Wellington, a small town at the west end of the Cascade Tunnel whose sole reason for existence was to support the railway.  There they sat, as snow accumulated on Windy Mountain, and eventually plunged down the slopes in a huge wet-slab avalanche during a rare winter thunderstorm in the early morning of March 1st.

It is easy to dismiss such a disaster as a reflection of the technology of the day, but society remains vulnerable to geophysical hazards (e.g., Hurricane Katrina).  At the time, courts found that the Wellington avalanche disaster was an "act of god", but all disasters have a human component.  The White Cascade is a great read for mountain weather weenies and anyone who wishes to learn more about the human decisions that contribute to a so-called natural disaster.  

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