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Official on deadly Washington mudslide: 'It haunts me'

Number Of Missing In Mudslide Drops To 90

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- Search and cadaver dogs and rescuers using small bulldozers and their bare hands on Wednesday looked for victims and survivors of a deadly mudslide as local officials said they did everything they could to keep the rural community safe in the years before the catastrophe.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said that following a 2006 landslide in the area, authorities took steps to mitigate risks and tell local residents about potential hazards. But he said the sheer size of this slide - which destroyed a neighborhood, likely killing at least 24 and leaving dozens missing - was overwhelming.

"It haunts me," a sometimes emotional Pennington said at news conference. "I think we did what we could do. Sometimes large slides happen."

Pennington said the landslide risk has been high this winter, and the Department of Natural Resources put out warnings on a routine basis.

He added officials will try to learn from this tragedy.

Authorities also told reporters they expect to soon have an updated number of people believed missing.

They are working off a list of 176 unaccounted for, though some names were thought to be duplicates and the number should decrease. Pennington said officials would 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.

"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.

Authorities said they are doing everything they can to keep responders safe as the increasingly desperate search progresses in mud and debris amid the threat of flash flooding. Searchers "got beat up" in Tuesday's rainy weather, operations section chief Steve Westlake noted.

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, according to 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, raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes in the area and whether officials took 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.

A year later, the Army Corps 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 the 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.

The area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century.

Steven Swanson, 66, lived in the slide area for several years in the 1980s.

"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 resides 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.

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

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

Pennington, the local emergency management official, choked up as he spoke of the help the region has received.

"It is very humbling. And we're respectfully, very grateful," he said.

---

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

Join the discussion

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C.D. Turner March 26 2014 at 5:19 PM

Why aren't Realtors required to have a disclosure about slide potential in the purchase contracts they use? I know some places require Purchaser notification if a muder took place in a property for sale.

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2 replies
hayes4re C.D. Turner March 26 2014 at 5:28 PM

They do, at least in California, it is a Natural Hazzard report

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itzvern C.D. Turner March 26 2014 at 5:43 PM

Why aren't potential homebuyers more proactive in researching for themselves as well? Do you think any realtor could sell a house in a disaster zone if they told the buyer?

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artist816 March 26 2014 at 5:33 PM

First my condolences to the families who lost loved ones. But i have to say that after La Conchita that people would learn but no. To say that the county officials had some responsibility is hog wash. Try to tell somebody if you work for government that they cant do something. The line at the next Board of Supervisors meeting would snake out the door, of all the people telling the County supervisors of how mean the building and planning officials are. We warn of these little perils all the time and we are swept up under the rug because some yahoo comes in and says I know so and so. Next thing you know you decision is reversed and they build anyways now fast forward a few years and something happens first thing people do blame it on the local government. Now you know why it takes us so long to do environment reports, because you cant get a good accurate reading on slide areas during the drier part of the year.

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2 replies
kinderprintables artist816 March 26 2014 at 5:58 PM

I agree with you. A lot of the locations that were lost in the landslide had been in their families for generations. It's real hard to tell anyone that they can't build somewhere for a what if. I am from this part of WA, and I can tell you that I really feel for the officials that are being hammered by reports about why people were allowed to build, etc. This isn't the time to be finding blame anyway. It's time to be there for friends and neighbors, and bring home those who are still missing. The rest of the stuff can wait until they are all located. I have been very impressed with how Snohomish County officials have been handling this crisis. They have been very up front, and have done their level best to provide information to the media as accurately and as fast as they can. Yet, you still have reporters looking for the next headline. The biggest headline should be that all of the people missing have been found, and what can we do to rebuild and help this community.

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1 reply
daydayzee kinderprintables March 26 2014 at 6:13 PM

It's not about BLAME its about not making the same mistake twice.

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irvinemei artist816 March 26 2014 at 7:33 PM

So many people in the rural communities "don't want big government telling me what I can do with my property". Duh?

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Steve-a-rino March 26 2014 at 5:12 PM

Well of course; first we are shocked, then we grieve, then we look for someone to blame. If they take the local government to task for "allowing" people to live in a mudslide area they had better blame the Florida government for letting people live in "Hurricane Alley" and the New Orleans government for gaily rebuilding in an area they know is going to flood again someday. This applies to all the cities along the Mississippi River, in California's "fire zone," in the Mid-West's Tornado Alley and anywhere else that the threat of natural disaster is historic, real and imminent.

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1 reply
ladyredux Steve-a-rino March 26 2014 at 7:48 PM

In this regard, New Jersey isn't a bad place to live. Hurrican Sandy not withstanding, that storm was a fluke... we don't have the kind of things there that you describe.

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1 reply
Adele ladyredux March 26 2014 at 7:52 PM

That is vey true!

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spectrum314 March 26 2014 at 5:15 PM

Very Sad... But who do you blame? They chose to live there and if the Government would have evicted them before this tragedy they would be saying stay out of our lives... this is called life... accidents happen...

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rochelle March 26 2014 at 5:09 PM

GOD BLESS THESE FOLKS AND THIER FAMILYS-MY PRAY IS THEY FIND MORE PEOPLE ALIVE AND THE NUMBERS OF UNCOUNTED FOR ARE NOT CORRECT-THANK YOU TO ALL WHO DO THE JOB OF RESCUE YOU ARE HERO'S

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no1gum March 27 2014 at 11:06 AM

I personally would try to avoid living in an area frequented by natural disasters. However, it sounds like a moratorium on new construction could have prevented or mitigated this tragedy.

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copart444 March 26 2014 at 5:08 PM

I was stationed at Whidbey Island during my Navy time, near Arlington. My parents lived on Camano Island next to Whidbey until they passed. Having seen first hand devastation in that area and having my parents tell me about incidents I must my heart goes out to those who li ve there.

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Dick March 26 2014 at 5:07 PM

This is such a horrible tragedy and we pray for all those lost souls and their surviving family members!!! I fail to understand though, why folks choose to live in this area that was designated a high danger of this sort of thing happening years ago!!! Just doesn't make any sense!

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Carol March 26 2014 at 5:58 PM

I'm from Washington state & most of my family still live there, my heart goes to out to everyone involved.

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Jan March 26 2014 at 5:01 PM

So sad...so very, very sad!

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