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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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da60sman March 26 2014 at 9:25 PM

Los Angeles County officials told developers they could not build an area called Big Rock, in Malibu. They sued and got the permits and built it up. Less than 30 years later the predicted landslide destroyed a couple dozen homes. The home owners sued the same Los Angeles County for letting the developers build. The home owners won and the tax payers ate it again.

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1 reply
wlh1923 da60sman March 26 2014 at 9:27 PM

Unnnnh this is Washington State in 2014. Got anything to say about the
current situation in the article?

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2 replies
da60sman wlh1923 March 26 2014 at 9:34 PM

If you read the article you would see that they also knew it was going to fail. Repeat, KNEW! And let them build. A good point I believe.

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stephen284 wlh1923 March 26 2014 at 10:37 PM

Yes! The people who lived in that area all knew of the inherent risk. Unfortunately, they disregarded it.

I pity the poor people who are victims of this landslide. However, there are always people who disregard risks and as a consequence put others at risk. Think mountain climbers who expect to be rescued by some young peole when they get themselves into trouble. The same for cavers, the skiers and snowboarders who go into known avalance areas, the boaters who go out in bad conditions and then expect the Coast Guard personnel to risk their lives in order to save idiots from themselves, etc.

As someone who has personally been involved in a few SAR missions, I can state that most were due to unprepared people who knew enough to get them into trouble, but not enough to get them out of it. These people all expect someone else to risk their lives in order to save them. Perhaps they should assume the risk for their own poor decisions.

So yes, I do have something to say: This area was well known to be a high risk landslide area. People choose to put themselves at risk, and worse, their children. Unfortunately, they've paid the ultimate price. The ground was supersaturated and as a result was unable to hold its own weight. Gravity has a way of bringing things down. The structural integrity of the hillside was affected by super wet ground. Once the underbond was broken, there was no stopping the slide until all the mass was at its critical level.

The same scenario happened with Mount Saint Helen's. The sad fact is you can live in a beautiful area, but may pay the price for doing so. Landslides/mudslides happen all the time. Most are in unpopulated areas. They're unpopulated for a reason.

So, I have pity for the poor souls who lost their lives in this, and other disasters. Hopefully no more persons will have lost their lives. However, there are still many missing. Good luck to them and their families.

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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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huckfynn1 March 27 2014 at 7:19 AM

Seems to me common sense did not prevail here this tragic loss of life could have should have been prevented by the homeowners them self's .I live in Fl and that same goes here after the devastation that the hurricane's caused what did people do they went right back and built in the same areas. When the gov't tried to step in they sued and built anyway people we build were we should not and by God no one is going to tell us we can't .How many billions of dollars do insurance company's pay out for natural disasters we know rivers will crest we know when we build below sea level it will have catastrophic repercussions my point is ,we know yet we still allow people to build and rebuild in places we have no right to build. They all knew yet chose to ignore the possibility this would eventually happen may they R.I.P .

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1 reply
kjmayberg huckfynn1 March 27 2014 at 7:39 AM

The New Jersey taxpayers (and federal) are shelling out billions to rebuild beaches and homes on barrier islands following last year's hurricane. These residences are often owned by the wealthy and block other residents from having access to the ocean.

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rhondaburke1 March 26 2014 at 6:49 PM

Most of these people were not native to the immediate area. They believed what the county told them about building there safely. Unless you are walking in their shoes right now, I suggest you tread softly....They are going thru enough, and all our surrounding communities are here to support them.

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seabirdsvc March 26 2014 at 6:36 PM

I am a 5th Generation Washingtonian, I grew up about 45 minutes South of Oso/Darrington. I have great sympathy for what they are going through. We have mudslides constantly in different parts of Washington. Just check WADOT. The BNSF railroad is shut down quite often between Everett and Seattle because of mudslides over the tracks. Mukilteo's hillsides are sliding off with houses teetering on the edge just look for the article dated March 8, 2014. There was a big landslide in Coupeville last March 2013 that had 34 houses evacuated. Yes they have known about this area for a long time. Here is a bit of a blog from AGU (American Geophysical Union) about that area's history:

The Yakima Herald has a very nice article that details the chronology of events on the Steelhead landslide. This includes:
•1949: A large landslide (1000 feet long and 2600 feet wide) affected the river bank
•1951: Another large failure of the slope; the river was partially blocked
•1967: Seattle Times published an article that referred to this site as “Slide Hill”
•1997 report, by Daniel Miller, for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes
•1999: US Army Corps of Engineers report by Daniel and Lynne Rodgers Miller that warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”
•25 January 2006: large movement of the Steelhead landslide blocked the river

But humans insist that it won't happen to them and build where they want sometimes with extremely sad consequences. We all are living to die. Keep those who lost their lives and their loved ones who are going to have to learn a new normal in your thoughts as you go about your daily business.

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1 reply
mark_bryant34 seabirdsvc March 26 2014 at 8:57 PM

As a fifth generation Washingtonian, you may have noticed that our population has increased rapidly. I'm no fan of all this growth, but you've got to put those extra people somewhere.

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ljoanl March 27 2014 at 9:19 AM

Devastating is just a word of description....
This is a heart breaking tragedy where people have lost their lives and families have lost loved ones and friends have lost friends...
Heart felt sadness and prayer for those left behind.

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suzannemazoff March 27 2014 at 9:21 AM

What a terrible tragedy and how sad for this community, the children, and families lost. Prayers go out for all.

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svhtwo March 26 2014 at 11:18 PM

There is no excuse for building/or allowing building in areas that are unstable. Should be deemed illegal.

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1 reply
irvinemei svhtwo March 27 2014 at 1:46 AM

Then somone says the ^%##$%^& government can't tell mw what to do with my property !

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1 reply
fordy5 irvinemei March 27 2014 at 3:21 AM

You mean, of course, the property your people stole from the Native Americans?

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rchenry616 March 27 2014 at 9:49 AM

This is no ones fault, I see all the finger pointing to the people who live there, this is nature and it is everywhere. How many states/countries should be human free then, due to mud slides, sink holes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes...the blamers out there must have the only home on the planet free from risk...if someone comes along and says there is a possibility that an event may happen near your home in an undetermined amount of time are you just going to sell out and move? And perhaps we just should eliminate Insurance Coverages and Government assistance completely because there is always, no matter what, a human involved that was assuming the risk of whatever happened that requires insurance coverage and or government assistance, right?

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2 replies
dubricus rchenry616 March 27 2014 at 10:08 AM

You've hit it exactly. There are some natural disasters that might occur more often in a particular area.... Earthquakes in Los Angeles, for example, or tornados in Tornado Alley. However, in both places there are buildings standing that are more than 200 years old. People often live where they live in order to make a living. They build where they build because it's often the easiest land to build on. As a society, in times of disaster we band together to help those who suffered losses. Those people who lived there will never rebuild there. The best that can be done is to help them get back on their feet. Everyone might be angry about a study that stated there was a landslide potential & a landslide did happen in 2006, but small landslides happen all the time where you mix rain with hillsides. The studies & the worries were more about flooding, which was actually much more likely to happen. If people were not allowed to live in areas that had disaster potential, we wouldn't be able to live anywhere.

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rcsyes rchenry616 March 27 2014 at 10:23 AM

You have got to be kidding!! Certain natural disasters like hurricans, tornados can affect entire states and sections of the country. But, when you live next to a major body of water in a flood zone or next to an active volcano or live by a mountain side that has a history of mudslides, you need to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR MAKING THAT DECISION. You apparently have difficulty in accepting any responsibility for events in your life.
Insurance companies make money because they assess the risk vs. reward ratio and know when to charge more or less.
For you to say that people should not be held accountable for choosing to live in an area that is obviously a potential mudslide, (according to surveys, historical accounts, etc..) is just banal and childish.
Some things can NOT be avoided, but most things are caused by people refusing to think before they act.
Like you.

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Wizard March 27 2014 at 8:09 AM

I was up in seattle wa. in nov 2012 and we were on the highway right in the middle of a deluge up on the mountain it was raining so hard that traffic had literally stopped, the storm had caused a power outage to 20 thousand people and a tree fell down and killed a guy, i swear i have never seen it rain that hard before it was frightening.

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