Heavy rain hinders search in slide zone


by KING 5 News and Associated Press


Posted on March 29, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Updated Saturday, Mar 29 at 11:04 AM

The latest:

• Fire Chief Travis Hots said Friday evening that the official death toll from the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office remains at 17. Officials have reported nine more bodies have been recovered, but that's not part of the official death toll.
• The Snohomish County Prosector's Office is determining whether the names of the 90 people reported missing can be released to the public.
• The county medical examiner's office has so far formally identified five victims: Christina Jefferds, 45, of Arlington; Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington; Linda L. McPherson, 69, of Arlington; Kaylee B. Spillers, 5, of Arlington and William E. Welsh, 66, of Arlington.
• The body of Jefferds' granddaughter, 4-month-old Sanoah Huestis, was found Thursday, said Dale Petersen, the girl's great-uncle.
Already wet search conditions are worsening for those working through the debris of the Oso slide. Nearly an inch of rain has fallen in a 48-hour period

Officials say they are rotating more search dog teams into the field to give those teams who have been working several days in a row a rest break.

Related: Rembering those lost in the Oso landslide

State Route 530 got drenched on Friday, as did the crews working nonstop to search.

“The rain and the wind and the weather is basically working against us,” said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots. “Areas that have dried out are going to become even more saturated with water. Areas that already have water that we’ve been working in will see some additional water going to those areas. It just makes things slower and more complicated.”

"These crews are extremely wet," Tom Cooper, Deputy Chief of the Arlington Fire Department said. "It's cold up there and it's windy up there. There's no shelter."

There is nothing, it seems, but so much debris and rain.

"With this heavy rain coming, there's a lot of water just flowing down the hillside, right into where they're working," said Cooper. "So it makes the ground soggy, it makes the trees that they're climbing over slippery."

Not only does the rain make work for searchers more uncomfortable, it could also increase the level of danger for responders and volunteers.

“We’ve got new geologists that are arriving on the scene to offer additional opinions to make sure that there’s not the risk of additional slides that could occur up there,” said Hots. “At this time, we believe that everybody that is at the site there, from an additional slide potential, is safe and we want to make that sure we’re continuing to evaluate that.”

The Northwest River Forecast Center predicted that the Stillaguamish River would rise about two feet Saturday east of the debris dam, from its current level of 4.6 feet to approximately 6.6 feet, based on the expected precipitation. However, flood stage is 15 feet at the forecast site near Arlington.

State geologists monitoring the river say despite the increasing rain, the flooding behind the debris dam continues to drop as the north fork of the Stillaguamish continues to widen a new channel through the dam.

The grueling process of locating, extracting and identifying human remains from the unstable debris covering the community of Oso northeast of Seattle has slowed the release of information by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office to a trickle.

Crews may be finding more remains amid the destruction, but the official death toll will remain at 17 until medical examiners can complete the "very, very challenging" task of identifying the bodies, said Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson.

Authorities have located at least eight other bodies in addition to the 17, and they previously said they expect the number of fatalities from Saturday's mudslide to rise substantially.

Ninety people were listed as missing, but hope for them began fading by midweek when they had not checked in with friends or relatives, and no one had emerged from the pile alive.

"We always want to hold out hope, but I think at some point we have to expect the worst," Haaksenson said.

Haakenson described for the first time Friday the difficulty of the searchers' task. When a body is found, the spot is marked for a helicopter pickup.

That only happens when the helicopters are able to fly in the wind and rain that has pummeled the search area. The victim is then placed in a truck in a holding area.

At the end of the day, all the recovered victims are transported to the medical examiner's office about 20 miles away in Everett.

"Autopsies are performed, the process of identification takes place -- if possible," Haakenson said. "The identification process has been very, very challenging. Once identified, we send a chaplain to the family, to notify them of our findings.”

In addition to bearing the stress of the disaster, townspeople were increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from authorities, said Mary Schoenfeldt, a disaster traumatologist who has been providing counseling services at schools and for public employees and volunteers.

"The anger and frustration is starting to rise," she said.

That's normal for this phase of a disaster, as is the physical toll taken by not having eaten or slept normally in days, she said.

There were also signs of resilience. Handmade signs have appeared that say "Oso strong" and "530 pride" in reference to the stricken community and state Highway 530 that runs through it.

The catastrophe, which followed weeks of heavy rain, was shaping up to be one of the state's worst disasters and one of the deadliest mudslides in U.S. history.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that swept away two trains killed 96.