Authorities: Mudslide Missing Number Drops To 90 - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Authorities: Mudslide Missing Number Drops To 90

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Washington authorities say the official death toll from a devastating mudslide remains at 16, with eight additional bodies located but not recovered. Washington authorities say the official death toll from a devastating mudslide remains at 16, with eight additional bodies located but not recovered.
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OSO, Wash. - -

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) - Washington authorities say the official death toll from a devastating mudslide remains at 16, with eight additional bodies located but not recovered.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington says Wednesday that the number of people missing or unaccounted for dropped Wednesday from 176 to 90.

He says the number of missing has been fluctuating, but authorities were able to eliminate 140 people who had been reported missing.

In addition there are 35 other people whose status is unknown.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) - Authorities say they expect to soon have an updated number of the people believed missing following a massive, deadly Washington state landslide.

Officials are working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names are thought to be duplicates, and the number should decrease. Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington says they'll have a revised figure later Wednesday.

Two additional bodies were recovered Tuesday, while eight more were located in the debris field from Saturday's slide 55 miles northeast of Seattle. That brings the likely death toll to 24, though authorities are keeping the official toll at 16 until the eight other bodies are recovered.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

With search and cadaver dogs leading the way, rescuers using small bulldozers and their bare hands pushed through sludge strewn with splintered homes and twisted cars to find 10 more bodies in the debris of a Washington state mudslide, authorities said.

Despite the grim discoveries as the search entered its fifth day Wednesday - and the likelihood that more bodies will be found - officials were still hoping to find survivors.

"We haven't lost hope that there's a possibility that we can find somebody alive in some pocket area," said Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots.

Two bodies were recovered Tuesday, while eight more were located in the debris field from Saturday's slide 55 miles northeast of Seattle, Hots said. That brings the likely death toll to 24, though authorities are keeping the official toll at 16 until the eight other bodies are recovered.

With scores still missing, authorities are working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.

Authorities said that number will change because more people have called in since the nearby logging town of Darrington's power was restored Tuesday.

Hundreds of rescuers and heavy equipment operators slogged through the muck and rain, following the search dogs over the unstable surface.

"Going on the last three days the most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people," Hots said. "But the dogs are the ones that are pinpointing a particular area to look, and we're looking and that's how we're finding people."

A volunteer was injured Tuesday when he was struck by debris blown by a helicopter's rotor. The man was transported to a hospital for evaluation, but the injuries appeared minor, Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said in a statement.

As the increasingly desperate search progressed, reports surfaced that warned of the potential for dangerous landslides in the community.

A 2010 report commissioned by Snohomish County to comply with a federal law warned that neighborhoods along the Stillaguamish River were among the highest-risk areas, The Seattle Times reported.

The hillside that collapsed Saturday outside of the community of Oso was one highlighted as particularly dangerous, said the report by California-based engineering and architecture firm Tetra Tech.

"For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity," said report author and Tetra Tech program manager Rob Flaner.

A 1999 report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller, although not about housing, raises questions about why residents were allowed to build homes in the area and whether officials had taken proper precautions.

"I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event," though not when it would happen, said Miller, who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. "I was not surprised."

A year later, the U.S. Army Corps of engineers warned in another study that lives would be at risk if the hillside collapsed, The Daily Herald of Everett reported.

Residents and county officials were focused on flood prevention, even after a 2006 landslide that did not reach any homes.

"We were just trying to stabilize the river so we could save the community from additional flooding," said Steve Thomsen, the county's public works director.

Snohomish County Emergency Department director John Pennington said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners "were very aware of the slide potential."

In fact, the area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday's disaster was in 2006.

"We've done everything we could to protect them," Pennington said.

Steven Swanson, 66, lived in the slide area for several years in the 1980s before moving down the road to Darrington.

"I've been told by some of the old-timers that one of these days that hill was going to slide down," said Swanson, who now lives in Northport in northeast Washington. "County officials never said anything to me about it while I lived it there, just the old-timers who grew up there."

Predicting landslides is difficult, according to a study published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012. One challenge is estimating the probability of a slide in any particular place.

Homeowners insurance typically does not cover landslide damage, but customers can purchase such coverage, said Karl Newman, president of the NW Insurance Council, a trade group in the Northwest.

One of the authors of the USGS report, Jonathan Godt, a research scientist with the agency in Colorado, said landslides don't get that much attention because they often happen in places where they don't hit anything.

But with Americans building homes deeper into the wilderness, he said, "there are more people in the way."

Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press writers Jason Dearen in San Francisco; Lisa Baumann in Seattle; P. Solomon Banda in Darrington, Wash.; and photographer Elaine Thompson in Oso, Wash., contributed to this report. Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.

PREVIOUS STORY:

NBCNEWS.COM - Eight more bodies were located and were expected to be pulled from the pile of trees, mud and other debris Wednesday in the Cascade foothills community about an hour northeast of Seattle.

As the recovery effort continues in its grim task, here are several questions that linger about the tragedy:

How did the mudslide happen?The hillside across from the small town of Oso, by the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, has been a known landslide area for more than 60 years, according to geologists.

The river has been eroding the base of the slope since at least the 1950s, bringing down earth and debris that muddied the river and threatened salmon runs in stretch of water that has lured fishermen to the area for ages. Then in 2006, a small slide damaged homes in a small riverside neighborhood.

Over the winter, heavy rains saturated the soil on the unstable slope perched precariously above the neighborhood. Then, on Saturday morning, the soaked earth gave way — possibly disturbed by a tiny 1.1 earthquake about two weeks earlier.

A massive load of some 15 million cubic yards of mud, clay and wood roared across the river and buried the neighborhood and other rural homes before it raced across state Highway 530.

How many people were killed?The day of the slide, four people were confirmed dead. Since search-and-rescue operations began another 12 bodies have been pulled from the slide zone, and officials expect the number to increase as more bodies are recovered.

John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, acknowledged on Tuesday that the chances of finding survivors were slim but said the effort remained a rescue and recovery operation.

“I believe in miracles," he said. "I believe that people can survive these events."

Why are so many people still missing?Four days after the deadly landslide, authorities still did not have an accurate number on how many people were missing in the disaster. The potential number keeps going up. At first it was 18, then 108, as of Tuesday it stood at 176.

The confusion, officials said, comes from using what are essentially raw numbers — reports called into a hotline by family, friends and others that could be false alarms and also likely include duplicates

The emergency agency director, Pennington, on Tuesday said, "the 176, I believe very strongly is not a number we're going to see in fatalities. I believe it's going to drop dramatically."

Search efforts are likely to be long and complicated given the isolated location, weather and the nature of the debris, a senior federal official monitoring the rescue effort told NBC News.

“The ground is still moving. It's really not good,” the official said of the situation.

And, sadly, the slowly moving debris pile is likely is causing significant damage to any bodies still buried in the debris, the official said.

Any future forensic work will be painstaking, reminiscent in some ways of work after the World Trade Center attack in September 2001, the official said.

The situation on the debris field is also complicated by the high number of potential casualties, a lack of electrical power at the site, the cold weather, an absence of nearby shelter, and the many agencies involved in the operation (law enforcement, rescue crews, medical examiner, utilities, and others), the official said.

"It's just slow tedious work," said Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots, who said he's seen cars twisted and torn into pieces by the force of the slide.

Did residents have a warning about the disaster?The mudslide happened without an evacuation order or any other alert at about 11 a.m. local time on Saturday, March 22.

County officials have insisted they couldn’t have anticipated the slide, but records dating back to the 1950s show that the hillside in Oso was unstable.

John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, on Monday called the slide “completely unforeseen.”

“This came out of nowhere,” he said.

Yet a 1999 report for the Army Corps of Engineers by geomorphologist Daniel Miller warned of the potential for a massive collapse.http://tinyurl.com/lfyugnz

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick and Public Works Director Steve Thomsen have said they were not aware of the 1999 report.

Will property owners receive insurance or other compensation from the damage?Fewer than 1 percent of homeowners in Washington state have insurance against landslides, according to Karl Newman, president of the Northwest Insurance Council.

Newman said 4,700 of properties — homeowners and businesses — in the state have such coverage. There are 1.5 million single family homes, according to the U.S. Census.

Known as a Difference in Conditions (DIC) policy, the policies cover disasters not include from the typical homeowner's or business policy. A DIC policy can cover landslide, mudflow, earthquake, and floods.

Cost of the policies vary by risk and are written not by familiar names in homeowner’s insurance but by Lloyds of London and other companies.

Though it is unknown how many in Oso had such insurance, Newman said generally four factors seem to keep homeowners from signing up for the policies:

They underestimate the risks of a steep slope or other hazard.They expect Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster coverage to pick up the costs. But grants are capped at $33,000, and the rest of support comes by way of low-interest loans. Also, FEMA flood insurance likely will not cover mudslides-landslide damage but might cover “mud flows,” Newman said.They are optimistic and don't expect a bad event to happen to them. They don’t want to spend what could be $1,000 or more for a DIC policy on a $300,000 house.

How are emergency crews searching?Officials are using maps that they have overlaid on the slide zone, and they have also talked to a number of local residents to get an idea of what specific locations — homes and other residences where people were known to be dwelling — should be targeted for searches.

Search and cadaver dogs often lead the way into the slide zone where emergency crews, including firefighters, police as well as local residents, are digging through the mess of earth and wood debris.

Bulldozers and smaller backhoes are on hand to help the digging, and helicopters to help in spotting and transportation.

"We haven’t lost hope that there is a possibility that someone will be found alive," Hots, the fire chief, said late Tuesday. "We're going full steam ahead."

At times, searchers are climbing atop flattened houses and cutting holes in the structure with chain saws.

After President Barack Obama declared an emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested 18 California firefighters with special training in urban rescue to join the effort.

Members of the Urban Search and Rescue teams are specifically deployed to find people trapped after a disaster.

The work, however, is made difficult by the sheer amount of debris – an estimated 15 million cubic yards of muck and wreckage.

How do people move on and recover from a mudslide?If the history of such disasters is any guide, it could take weeks, months or even years for the community to completely recover from the tragedy.

On Wednesday, a family assistance center for relatives to identify victims will be set up in the nearby town of Arlington. A special crisis line has also been created where residents dealing with anguish can call.

State road crews are clearing snow from the Mountain Loop Highway, normally closed until Memorial Day, in order to give residents a route into the largest town in the area Darrington, which has been cut off by the slide.

People are also gathering at churches to pray for loved ones as well as healing and strength for the community.

The Red Cross as well as some local banks have are receiving donations to help the community recover.

Still, the emotional toll of survivors is hard to measure.

“Some of these are our friends, family of some people that serve with us.” Jeff McClelland, a local volunteer firefighter helping find victims, told NBC station KING TV. “A close firefighter friend lost his wife and his granddaughter. That's tough.”

He said he will continue working to free people trapped in the debris pile in order to give friends and neighbors a final resting place.

After that, the town might begin to move on.

Bill Dedman and Richard Esposito of NBC as well as The Associated Press contributed to this report.

PREVIOUS STORY:

ARLINGTON, Wash. - A fire official in Washington's Snohomish County says two more bodies have been recovered and eight others may have been located. That brings the number of confirmed deaths from last weekend's mudslide to 16, with the possibility of 24 dead. 

Fire Chief Travis Hots told KHQ's Kelsey Watts that recovery efforts on Tuesday were very challenging with more rain. Hots said over 200 responders are on scene, including search and cadaver dogs, search and rescue, helicopters, FEMA, the National Guard, and heavy equipment, such as tractors. Hots said they are still hopeful they will find someone alive.

When asked about the personal impact of the tragedy, Hots responded, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't dying."

A family assistance center will be established on Wednesday in Arlington for families with deceased relatives. 

Temporary housing will be established for displaced families through a partnership with human services and The Red Cross. 

Authorities also say a call center will be open on Wednesday from 6am to 8pm, and then after that it will become a tip line. A 24 hour Crisis Care Hotline is being established. The number to dial is 1-800-584-3578.

Authorities say right now they have plenty of volunteers. 

The search will continue on Wednesday. Authorities say the number of people missing as of Tuesday night stands at 176. 

Previous Coverage: 

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) - The Darrington Fire Department says about 60 civilian volunteers showed up Tuesday morning to help with the mudslide search and rescue operation.
   
Volunteer spokeswoman Cindy White says they won't be able to accept any more volunteers Tuesday.
   
The people who showed up Tuesday morning are from near and far. They will be helping the professional searchers in the debris field from Saturday's mudslide.
   
White says the fire department is also setting up a registry to keep track of local residents who are searching on their own. They want to closely track all volunteers for their own safety.

PREVIOUS STORY:

KHQ.COM - A task force of rescue experts was due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday to bolster the increasingly desperate search for survivors after an immense mudslide.Officials have battled dangerous quicksand-like conditions at the mile-square debris field near Oso, Wash., but have failed to find anyone alive since Saturday.

Six more bodies were pulled from a jumble of mud, trees and destroyed homes on Monday – putting the official death toll at 14. There were 176 reports of people missing, but authorities were keen to stress that some of these could be false alarms or duplicates.

Following a declaration of emergency by President Barack Obama, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested 18 California firefighters with specialist training in urban rescue join the effort.

Members of the Urban Search and Rescue teams, receive hundreds of hours of training in a regime described by FEMA as “intensive, to say the least.”

They are specifically deployed to find people trapped after a disaster. In addition to their general training, different members of the team have individual expertise in finding the victims, digging them out and treating them at the scene.

Dogs are to used to sniff people out and they carry what FEMA calls a “comprehensive equipment cache.”

"Incidents like these are exactly what we train for and we know the call can come any time," said LaWayne Hearn, chief of Riverside City Fire Division, which sent personnel to Washington.

Another, San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar, added: "Our Urban Search and Rescue responders train under unique conditions year-round to be ready to respond to all hazards."

John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that a 50-person search team from the National Guard was also en route to the area.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services dispatched the personnel Monday at the request of FEMA.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the communities impacted by Saturday’s debris slide and we are activating these highly-skilled responders into the area for emergency assistance,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

"A massive slide like this requires an all-hands on deck approach," added Sacramento City Fire Chief Dan Haverty. "We are getting our California personnel and gear to the impacted area as fast as possible."

The search so far has included helicopters, firefighters, police officers, dogs and heavy equipment operators.

Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told a news briefing Monday night that they were "looking in areas where there are most likely survivors."

Saturday's mudslide flattened dozens of homes in an area that was 4,400 feet wide by 4,400 feet long — shy of a square mile — leaving muck and debris in its wake.

It peeled off a section of the hill that is 1,500 feet wide and 600 feet high. The concern was the land behind that so-called head-scarp might be unstable.

The mud and debris also dammed up a river, which was causing flooding upstream. The water was up to the eaves in seven homes, and officials were considering further evacuations.
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