Covington principal reflects on time at Oso

Capt. Mike McCarthy, or Principal McCarthy as he is known around Covington Elementary School, is one of many local residents who helped at the site of the 520 mudslide in Oso in the slide’s aftermath.

Capt. Mike McCarthy, or Principal McCarthy as he is known around Covington Elementary School, is one of many local residents who helped at the site of the 520 mudslide in Oso in the slide’s aftermath.

McCarthy serves as the commanding officer of Alpha Company of the 1-161st Infantry Regiment of Washington’s Army National Guard. He joined up in the late 90’s after graduating from Kentwood High School. His assignments have included two deployments to the Middle East in 2004 and 2008, and the call to Oso was McCarthy’s first time responding to a natural disaster of that size and scope.

Some 117 member of Alpha Company, which is based in Everett, were called to Oso in early April and remained on site until April 23 as part of the search and recovery team.

McCarthy said the company split into two platoons, working from both the East and West sides of the slide area, along with other searchers.

The work included, “searching by foot, combing through material, doing some digging, and helping as the heavy equipment scraped the surface and search dogs would search,” McCarthy said.

Other work they participated in included helping to move standing water and searching in boats on the river.

There was no “typical” day McCarthy said.

“We were just searching diligently for those that were lost,” he explained.

McCarthy explained that the National Guard responds to all kinds of emergencies, both at the state level and higher, and that units are called based on a rotation.

“Typically there is a volunteer call for folks to be involved in floods and fires,” McCarthy said. “In this case it was the activation of the whole unit.”

Responding to a disaster like the 520 slide, McCarthy said, is something one can’t ever quite prepare for.

“It’s something you can’t capture in pictures,” he said. “We’d seen the news prior to heading up there and been given briefs with pictures…but just being there and observing the power of the slide and the damage it caused were pretty incredible. We also weren’t able to grasp the community support until we got there.”

The support, McCarthy went on to say, was huge.

“The first things you noticed when you went up to Oso was the street lined with cars and then a community donation site,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy taught at Mattson and Kentwood before moving into administration as dean of students at Mill Creek, then an assistant principal position in the Federal Way School District and coming to Covington Elementary as the school’s principal last summer.

Students from Crestwood Elementary and Covington Elementary wrote letters and made posters to encourage the search and rescue workers.

One of the things that struck McCarthy the most in his time at the site was seeing what the students had made.

“We came off the day’s work, and we were housed at the rodeo grounds and they had a big tent for dinner, and one of the things: we walked into the tent and our guys walking past some posters hanging up and they were some posters from students at Crestwood Elementary,” McCarthy said. “That was pretty neat.”

Serving at Oso was also a chance for McCarthy to live out the Covington Elementary motto of “together we win.”

“It was evidenced there,” McCarthy said. “Together again, we can all come together for a common purpose and help accomplish something…It came down to just community and support coming together for the common cause of bringing closure and hope to the families and the organizations.”

Upon his return to school, McCarthy shared with students about the work he had done, and he got to see how students had been involved — from sending cards and letters to students who decided to do reports and projects on the power of mudslides for the school’s science fair.

“It was just a powerful experience and I’m proud to serve both as the principal here at Covington and in the military,” McCarthy said. “I’m pretty lucky to serve in both capacities and have the support of the students at Covington Elementary.”