Thursday, 27 March 2014

Missing-Persons list in Washington mudslide disaster a work in progress

Five days after a catastrophic mudslide buried a rural area near Oso, Wash., killing at least 16 people, authorities raced to locate survivors. The list of those reported unaccounted for or missing after the slide fell Wednesday to 90 from 176, though officials said the status of 35 other names was now classified as "in question."

Authorities in any disaster initially cast as wide a net as possible in compiling a list of possible victims, erring on the side of overestimating, said Kim Zagaris, fire chief for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Typically, officials start by consulting public records, such as property records, to calculate how many structures are in the affected area. Then, they try to determine how many of those buildings were known to be occupied, and how many other people potentially could have been in the area, including those who may have been visiting or traveling through, Mr. Zagaris said.

Ronald Klamecki, a Los Angeles Fire Department captain assigned to search and rescue, said it isn't unusual for the number of missing people to fluctuate, meaning it can take days to figure out the scope of a disaster.

Mr. Klamecki, who searched for survivors after the 2005 La Conchita landslide in Southern California that killed 10 and destroyed 13 houses, said that while he and other rescuers dug bodies out of ruined houses and dirt, other officials looked up property records and tried to contact owners to narrow down the number of missing.

It is especially tricky, he said, "when you've got a mix of year-round residents and some vacation homes," which was the case in La Conchita as well as in Oso. "It took a few days to figure out who was there and who wasn't."

Officials say they must assume that anyone who may have been in the affected area is missing until proven otherwise.

"It's not like an airline where you have an official manifest," said Bryan W. Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and vice president of the National Emergency Management Association.

As to what could drive up the number on a missing-persons list days into a disaster, Mr. Koon said it could result from someone who missed a doctor's appointment or failed to return to work from a scheduled vacation and was reported missing. Or, he said, "it could be that they are in a shelter and their cellphone has died."

In compiling the list in Oso, officials drew from various databases, including property records, rental information and driver's licenses, said Marybeth O'Leary, a spokeswoman for Snohomish County. They also received reports on missing people from friends, relatives and neighbors who called a hotline.

"They are trying to make sure they get everyone," Ms. O'Leary said.

She said the county revised the number of names on the list—to 108, then to 176—as more records became available Monday and individual lists were combined.

The number, "as discouraging as that sounds, [it] is exactly what we were looking for, which was information and data," said John Pennington, Snohomish County's emergency management director. "A good analogy, I think, is John Doe, 123 Steelhead Lane, brown hair, brown eyes; John, brown hair; John, 58 years of age. Of the 176, it's probably the same person."

Three Snohomish County Sheriff's officers, including missing-persons investigators, are helping three other analysts and several volunteers sort through the list to narrow it down, said Ms. O'Leary.

They are checking the names against those who have reported themselves being safe. They also are searching for contact information for those reported missing and making calls to try to ascertain who should remain on the list, said Ms. O'Leary.

Officials later will reconcile the revised list with the list of bodies recovered, Ms. O'Leary said.

Thursday 27 March 2014

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Uganda: Lake Albert boat disaster toll climbs to 251

More than 251 Congolese refugees perished in the weekend sinking of a crowded boat on Lake Albert, between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, Kinshasa said Thursday.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende also declared three days of national mourning starting Thursday in the wake of Saturday's disaster.

Uganda had said Tuesday it had recovered 107 bodies including 57 children after the sinking of the boat, which was packed with refugees from the DRC hoping to return home from a camp in Uganda.

"It is with deep sorrow that we confirm to the nation the death of 251 of our compatriots who had boarded the boat from the Ugandan side of Lake Albert," Mende told reporters.

He said there had been about 300 people on the board at the time.

Navigation on central Africa's Great Lakes can be as perilous as sailing in high seas when the weather is rough. Accidents often lead to very high casualty tolls, partly because of a lack of life-jackets and also because relatively few people know how to swim.

Saturday's disaster happened just days after the DRC authorities launched a campaign to enforce the wearing of life jackets aboard all boats on the large nation's many waterways.

Thursday 27 March 2014

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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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MH370 Crash: Spiritual rites dim as uncertainty of finding bodies abound

Perth braces as hundred of grieving and agitated families of MH370 passengers are expected to travel as soon as wreckage is found. Traveling to Perth is the closest they can get to the final place where their loved-ones were.

About 227 passengers from 15 nations and regions aboard MH370 plane. The passengers were a combination of different nationalities, spiritual beliefs and religions.

Finding the bodies of their relatives was particularly essential to consummate funeral rites that are vital to their spiritual beliefs.

Chinese Culture

Among the 227 passengers of the missing plane, two-thirds were Chinese, including 19 artists with six family members and four staff. They came from a calligraphy exhibition of their works in Kuala Lumpur.

The Chinese were notably the ones being agitated about the tragedy. Experts said the Chinese were behaving this way because of the funeral rites are embedded deeply in their culture.

According to Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, Chinese believed the souls of those who die tragically into the unknown, or whose bodies are not recovered (as in the case of the MH370), will remain lost to the unknown.

In an interview with ABC News, Joy Chen, cultural icon and author of the popular Chinese-language book, "Do Not Marry Before 30," explained that Chinese culture needs the presence of a body to complete the funeral rites.

"In a Chinese culture, the living and the dead are part of the same family. There is such a strong sense of family. You are separated from your ancestor, but they are still a part of you."

Chen cited the Chinese viewed the holiday Qing Ming , meaning "sweep the grave," of particular importance. It is impossible to have this ritual without the presence of a body.

The idea of a funeral without the bodies being mourned is beyond the understanding of the Chinese culture. Chinese usually hire professional wailers to cry during funeral rites.

"When person first dies it's incredibly important to have a body. You have a wake for a whole day or more. The body is cleaned and dressed up in their best clothes and all the friends and relatives come around to pay respects. Then after that, there is a funeral procession and everyone goes to the grave site," Chen noted.

"Because in Chinese tradition, death is not just the end of a person's life, they are going to another world and the family continues to maintain our relations with our ancestors. We live among them all the time and even seek their help."

With this belief, the MH370 tragedy created a sense of uncertainty for the Chinese that their loved-ones will be peaceful.

"There is no sense of certainty. You haven't had the opportunity to pay respects from the passing of this world to the world of the dead. You don't get to acknowledge and respect their passage into the afterlife."


As written in the book titled, "Hindu Rites of Passage: The Funeral," details of the exact date and time of a loved-one's death is important for the final rites.

"Otherwise, the soul will not rest in peace and it will become an earthbound spirit. The authorities should declare a date and time because there are specific ceremonies for a send-off of the dead," author P.S. Maniam wrote.

Hindu G. Subramaniam, whose son Puspanathan, 34, was on the flight, said he cannot imagine performing the final passage without the body of his son.

"I still believe my son will return as there is no death certificate issued on his status," he noted.


Tan Hoe Chieow, president of the Federation of Taoist Associations Malaysia, said closure can only be complete with the information of exact location and time of death.

"We need to know where it happened and go to the scene of the accident to perform rituals and prayers. It can be done without the physical body, but the priest and family must be in the same area. If the relatives are not given their final rites, they become lost souls," Chieow explained.

Muslims echoed the same sentiments. A funeral cannot be consummated without the body.

Christians And Bhuddists

While the Chinese families were agitated of the Malaysian government, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's defense and acting transport minister, noted the families of the Australian passengers were calm.

"But the Chinese families must also understand that Malaysia also lost loved ones and many other nations also lost loved ones. I have seen images [of relatives] from Australia: very rational, understanding this is a global effort, not blaming Malaysia, because it is co-ordinating something unprecedented."

For Catholics, the body was not necessary to perform rites as they believe prayers will suffice. The same belief involves Bhuddists.

Chief Monk of Malaysia Datuk Rev K. Sri Dhammaratana said the Buddhists do not need body to perform the funeral rites.

"We don't need the body, we can just do the prayers as normal," he added.

"The body is not important as the mind and soul have already departed," Rev Sri Saranankara of Maha Karuna Buddhist Society noted.

Sardar Jagir Singh, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, called for the Malaysian government to conduct memorial or tribute for all those who were lost in the MH370 tragedy.

"When it comes to prayers, whether to hold a funeral, the family must decide. Perhaps, there can be prayers for the soul before the last rites are held," he said.

Thursday 27 March 2014

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