Interview with Dr. Melissa Newman: Oso Mudslide Volunteer Part II

Michelle Bufkin, AU Agriculture Communications Student/ EDEN Community of Practice Social Media Assistant, recently interviewed Dr. Melissa Newman to learn about search and rescue dogs and about her experience in Oso. Here is part 2 of Michelle’s interview with EDEN delegate Melissa Newman

How was the Oso mudslide similar or different from other conditions you have worked with your dog?
It was absolutely completely different. There was no way I could have prepared or trained my dogs for that. This mudslide was so much bigger than anything I could explain. There was more than just a little bit of mud. We were talking anywhere between 10-40 feet of mud. There were trees, houses, anything in its way it just pushed, it was said that the winds in front of the mudslide were in excess of 200 mph. They had huge excavators from the lumber companies and they were running everywhere creating noise; I could not have trained that situation, but because of the other training we had given the dogs they were prepared for it. Dog experts say that dogs don’t generalize, but I think you can train them to; when you keep taking them to different rubble piles they start to realize that the conditions don’t matter, they just need to do their job. But the mud was crazy, I sunk at one point all the way up to my chest and it took six men to dig me out because the mud was so deep and thick. These dogs maneuvered over all of this, got stuck in the mud, pulled themselves out. It was absolutely incredible, I was impressed with all of the dogs there, not just mine. There were 20 dogs there sent by FEMA, split into two groups of 10 dogs. I worked with the 10 dogs that were in my group and one dog was as good as another.

FEMA Oso MudslideDid the mud from the slide mess up the dog’s senses? 
Working the slide was actually difficult for the dogs because there were places where the odor did not come straight out. There was a lot of water because the slide rerouted a river, so the dogs would find odor in the water, and they were right, but that was not where we needed to dig. So what we did for the most part was once a dog sensed odor we would send in another dog to better locate a high priority place to dig. It was difficult for the dogs originally because they were not getting rewarded even though they thought they were at source. There was just so many feet of mud, and it rained out there probably 11 or 12 of the 14 days we were there, so the mud never dried; which may have actually helped us because if it had dried it would have made a cast that really would have kept the odor down. It was tough work, and unfortunately because there were so many fatalities that meant there was an odor everywhere. The dogs adjusted to it, but no dog by itself had a find. It was absolutely a team effort. When we went out, there were 12 people missing still, when we left that number was down to two.

With such a large area of debris, how did you focus a search?
They separated the areas geographically. There was a natural break in the mudslide to the east and west, so they split down that. I was assigned with the California Task Force 7, who hosted us. We worked the western side of the slide. They broke it down in grids, so we just worked the dogs in those grids and cleared our portion of it. The other group was assigned to Washington Task Force 1 and worked the same way on the east side. The excavators had their own grid, they would dig to natural surface and then move and dig to natural surface there. What made this a unique deployment is this was the first time that FEMA sent FEMA certified human remains detection dogs, they have used HR dogs before. They also did the first modular deployment ever, which means only handlers and their dogs were sent to Washington, instead of our entire task force. They did this because California Task Force 7 and Washington Task Force 1 were already in place, all they needed more of was handlers and dogs.

I know the conditions in Oso were extreme. How long can a dog successfully work in conditions like that?
It varies. When we went out originally we were working 10-hour days, but they quickly realized they did not want to exhaust all of the dogs at once. So they put us on a rotation where we would either get a morning or an afternoon off every other day. We were working 4-hour shifts, and during those 4 hours the dogs were not going non-stop. On the first few days we did the wide, cover it and screen it, and they got GPS points to focus on from there. Then we came back and targeted those areas. Personally, I would have liked to work my dog more, but the way they handled him he worked very hard and very well. Two things we were concerned about were dehydration and hypothermia. We had to put them in warming tents and make sure they had fluids whenever we were not working.

After seeing the disaster first hand, is there any advice you would give our readers to help recover from a natural disaster like this?
This community was pretty spectacular, they just handled it. This slide took out a major road between two towns,so all they had now was a logging road south of the incident; the day I got there it was a one-lane rough road, and when I left most of it was two lanes and resurfaced. The community was really good about taking care of people, we had thank you notes in our laundry and lunches, there were people that were doing our laundry for free to support us. As a community they knew where their resources were, their fire departments responded immediately. Knowing what resources you have available to you in state is critical. The communities need to know the details of where to get state support before an incident occurs. I can’t see anything that this community could have done differently to help in recovery. They managed their donations really well by documenting when people picked things up. People forget about that, because after a disaster donations will be made, so that raises the need for somewhere and someone to manage the donations. I guess that is a lesson learned for other communities, never underestimate the amount of stuff the community will receive. It truly was an honor to help this community because they are so sad, and if you can help them it’s good to be able to do that.

Didn’t see the first part of the interview? Read it here.