Rescuers slogging through muck and rain in an increasingly desperate search for survivors of a massive mudslide instead recovered two bodies and believe they have located another eight, Washington State officials said.
The official death toll rose to 16, with the possibility of 24 dead once the other bodies are confirmed, Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said on Tuesday.
The grim discoveries further demoralized the four-day search, as the threat of flash floods or another landslide loomed over the rescuers. With scores still missing from the slide that tore through a rural community north of Seattle on Saturday, authorities were working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.
That number will change because the power to the nearby logging town of Darrington was restored and more people have called in. An updated number was to be made available yesterday, Snohomish County Emergency Department director John Pennington said.
“We’re all still hoping for that miracle, but we are preparing for the other possibility,” Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said on Tuesday.
With the developments came word that a scientist working for the US government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the community.
The 1999 report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller 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 US Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”
Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated rural community of Oso said they were not aware of the study. The Seattle Times first reported on Miller’s analysis.
Pennington said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners “were very aware of the slide potential.”
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.
Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said it appears the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.
Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said: “We don’t have jurisdiction to do anything. We don’t do zoning. That’s a local responsibility.”
No landslide warnings for the area were issued immediately before the disaster, which came after weeks of heavy rain. The rushing wall of quicksand-like mud, trees and other debris flattened about two dozen homes and critically injured several people.
“One of the things this tragedy should teach us is the need to get better information about geologic hazards out to the general public,” said David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor with the University of Washington in Seattle.
Meanwhile, a volunteer was injured on 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.