Thursday, 27 March 2014

Washington rescue workers continue search for mudslide survivors

Rescue workers were continuing to search for scores of people still listed missing after a catastrophic landslide in Washington state, as river water backed up behind the debris field.

Sixteen bodies had been pulled from the mud by Wednesday, and another eight have been identified but remain stuck. That brought the probable death toll to 24, although the tally remains at 16 until officials are able to recover the other bodies.

Snohomish County officials revised down to 90 from 176 the number of individuals still officially unaccounted for, and conceded that some of the missing may never be recovered. The status of another 35 people was described as "unknown".

The scope of this disaster has drawn international attention, along with direct federal aid and the personal condolences of President Obama. "While I won't get ahead of the response and rescue operations, we know part of this tightly-knit community has been lost," Obama said.

Mothers and sons, brothers and wives, babies and children: whole families were swallowed when the sparsely forested hillside gave way on Saturday morning, rushing downslope and across the north fork of the Stillaguamish river, filling its contours and ploughing through 49 homes clustered around Steelhead and East Steelhead drives, before burying a mile of Highway 530.

Even now, county officials are monitoring the Stillaguamish, which has backed up behind the debris, flooding more houses and creating a large pond that is cutting into the rubble, carrying it downstream. County officials said there were 120m cubic feet of water still held in abeyance; while Tuesday brought heavy rain, the water level dropped slightly between Monday and Tuesday.

"Sometimes, landslides that are this catastrophic just happen," said John Pennington, the director of Snohomish County's department of emergency management.

"People knew this was a landslide-prone area," he said, noting that he is still trying to understand whether a small earthquake could have shaken the hill loose. "Sometimes big events just happen; large events that nobody sees happen. The community did feel safe. They knew the risk, but they felt safe from the smaller events. This wasn't a small event. It was large, and it was catastrophic."

There were questions on Wednesday over whether it could be stated categorically that the disaster was unforeseen. The slide took place in the same location as a series of historical mudslides, the most recent of which occurred in 2006 and was later mitigated with retaining walls meant to shore up the sides of the slope. In 2010, Snohomish County commissioned a report that highlighted this exact hill as a high-risk landslide area. Elsewhere in the state, governments have been buying people out of their homes in communities susceptible to natural disasters.

The 2010 report, carried out by Tetra Tech, a California-based engineering firm, said the area affected by Saturday's mudslip was particularly vulnerable. "For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity," Rob Flaner, the report author, told the Seattle Times.

The devastated riverside community was built below a hill of glacial sediment undercut by a flood-prone river and exposed to higher water saturation after repeated logging. Those risks came together to form a deadly dynamic during one of the wettest Marches on record for the area 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

When asked if the country should have been more prepared, Pennington said: "I'm not sure that we could have. It haunts me. We did everything we could have done, and the community did feel safe."

Teams of national guardsmen, fire fighters, police officers and volunteers are now slogging through the mud, using heavy equipment to remove splintered trees, crushed cars and collapsed houses, searching for the bodies of the missing.

Thursday 27 March 2014


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