On Wednesday, Washington officials reduced the number of people missing from a community wiped out by a mudslide from 176 to 90, as more bodies were found but acknowledged some victims’ remains may never be recovered.
Authorities confirmed on Tuesday that 16 people are dead, and some bodies have been located in the devastation zone about 55 miles northeast of Seattle, but not yet extracted from the debris; these numbers held constant as of Wednesday night. The official death toll did not rise, according to John Pennington, Snohomish County’s emergency-management director.
“We need to take a step back and look at the magnitude of what happened,” Mr. Pennington said.
“The debris field is huge, it’s complex, and it’s dangerous. I don’t think we have a lot of answers. All I can definitely say is that we have a number that is 90 and we’re going to pursue that as much as we can.”
Eight other people survived the slide but were injured, including a 22-week-old baby rescued with his mother and listed in critical condition although he was improving. The mother and three other survivors also remained hospitalized.
Search teams, using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands, have been searching the disaster zone near the rural town of Oso, after thousands of tons of mud flattened dozens of houses on Saturday.
White markers were placed at the edge of the gouged slope to help detect any further shifting of the hillside, and searchers used dogs and sophisticated equipment such as listening devices and cameras capable of probing voids in the debris.
The slide already ranks as one of the worst in the United States. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and floods in Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“This disaster is so enormous, I sometimes think the even pictures don’t always do it justice,” said Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, who represents the area. “The number of families that have been impacted, the number of people that they’ve lost, the number of people who are still missing. It’s truly, truly heartbreaking.”
In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighborhoods “memorial grounds.”
Jan McClelland, a volunteer firefighter from Darrington who was among the first to arrive at the scene and has spent long days digging through the thick gray muck, conceded it was possible some bodies may end up forever entombed at the site.
“I’m fearful we won’t find everyone,” she said. “That’s the reality of it.”
Snohomish County’s emergency management director, John Pennington, told reporters that local authorities had spent millions of dollars on work to reduce landslide risks in the area after the 2006 event. He suggested that while officials and residents were aware of vulnerability to unstable hill slopes, Saturday’s tragedy came out of the blue, says Reuters.
“We really did a great job of mitigating the potential for smaller slides to come in and impact the community,” Pennington said. “So from 2006 to this point, the community did feel safe; they fully understood the risks.”