World News

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Up to 108 people still missing after Washington mudslide

Jonathan Kaminsky

Published 24/03/2014|17:27

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Brian Anderson, left,  and Coby Young search through the wreckage of a home belonging to the Kuntz family Sunday, March 23, 2014, near Oso, Wash. The entire Kuntz family was at a baseball game Saturday morning when a fatal mudslide swept through the area. The family returned Sunday to search through what remained. (AP Photo /The Herald, Genna Martin)
Brian Anderson, left, and Coby Young search through the wreckage of a home belonging to the Kuntz family Sunday, March 23, 2014, near Oso, Wash
A search helicopter flies above the area Sunday where a fatal mudslide washed over the land Saturday morning near Oso, Wash., Sunday, March 23, 2014. A flag sits atop what was Cory Kuntz and family's home Sunday afternoon. The family was at a baseball game Saturday morning when the fatal mudslide swept through the area, destroying everything on their property. (AP Photo /The Herald, Genna Martin)
A search helicopter flies above the area Sunday where a fatal mudslide washed over the land Saturday morning near Oso, Wash., Sunday
A house is seen destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on Sunday, March 23, 2014, the day after a giant landslide occurred near mile marker 37 near Oso, Washington.  At least six homes have been washed away, with three people reported dead so far and at least eighteen missing. The nearby Stillaguamish River has been dammed up by 15-20 feet of debris as a result, creating more flooding concerns, as reported by KING 5 via the state hydrologist.  (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Lindsey Wasson, Pool)
A house is seen destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on Sunday, March 23, 2014, the day after a giant landslide occurred near mile marker 37 near Oso, Washington

As many as 108 people were listed as missing after a weekend mudslide hit dozens of homes and killed at least eight people in Washington state although county authorities said they expect many of the missing to ultimately turn up safe.

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But emergency management authorities expressed doubts that more survivors would be plucked from under the muck and debris, and concern lingered about flooding from water backing up behind a crude dam of mud and rubble dumped into a river by Saturday's slide.

"The situation is very grim," said Travis Hots, Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief. "We're still holding out hope that we're going to be able to find people that may still be alive. But keep in mind we haven't found anybody alive on this pile since Saturday in the initial stages of our operation."

The landslide was triggered after a rain-soaked hillside along State Route 530 near Oso, Washington, gave way on Saturday morning, washing away at least six homes in an area about 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Seattle.

In all, at least 49 homes had some damage from the slide, said John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

The search for victims resumed early on Monday after treacherous quicksand forced rescue workers to suspend their efforts at dusk on Sunday. Some workers, mired in mud up to their armpits, had to be dragged to safety.

A spokesman for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office said eight bodies had been found by Sunday evening in the square-mile (2.6 square km) disaster zone of tangled debris, rocks, trees and mud. Another eight people were injured in the landslide.

On Sunday night, officials put the number of missing at 18 or more, but on Monday morning Pennington said various agencies had collected reports - some specific and others vague - of 108 people who remained unaccounted for after the disaster.

"The number is, I think no question, going to decline dramatically. But it is a number that we want to just go ahead and disclose and say, 'That's what we're working with,'" Pennington said.

HOPE FOR THE MISSING

The potential number of victims swallowed by the mudslide was higher on a Saturday, with many people at home, than it might have been on a weekday when more residents would have been at work or school, Pennington said. He noted that an unspecified number of construction workers were in the area at the time.

But authorities were hoping many of those reported as missing turn out to be survivors who were either double-counted or slow in alerting loved ones and local officials as to their whereabouts.

The slide in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains along the Stillaguamish River piled mud, boulders and rubble up to 15 feet (5 m) deep in some places.

It blocked the flow of the river, backing up water behind a natural dam left in the stream's channel that caused flooding of seven homes upstream of the slide, Pennington said.

"The bad news is that the water continues to rise and homes are inundated up to the eaves in many cases," he said. "If there is a silver lining in that event ... it is that it is a slow, methodical rise. You can see the danger."

Authorities said as the volume and pressure of water behind the dam continued to build, there was a chance that additional downstream flooding and mud flows could be unleashed, though that threat appeared to be diminishing for the moment.

Hots said Monday's search would incorporate the use of aircraft, teams with search dogs and special electronic equipment.

"Also, the Washington State Department of Transportation is going to have heavy equipment out there to clear mud out of the way so that we can continue to search those areas," he said.

Washington state Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen has declared a state of emergency in Snohomish County.

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