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Sewage, propane, and other chemicals lie beneath the gray mud that engulfed a small community and left dozens dead
March 31, 20141:49PM ETUpdated 9:15PM ET
Rescue teams struggling to wade through thick mud up to their armpits amid heavy downpours at the site of a devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge — an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants.
Sewage, propane, household solvents and other chemicals lie beneath the surface of the gray mud and rubble that engulfed hundreds of acres of a small, rural community and left dozens dead and missing northeast of Seattle on the morning of March 22.
The official death toll climbed to at least 24 on Monday, with the number of missing revised downward to 22, from 30, nine days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River. Estimated financial losses from the mudslide have reached $10 million, Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday in a letter asking the federal government for a major disaster declaration.
The torrent of mud released by the landslide roared over both stream banks and across state Highway 530, flattening dozens of homes on the outskirts of the town of Oso in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
Snohomish County officials planned to present their next update on the status of the recovery operations at 11 a.m. local time on Monday.
Managers of the recovery operation were taking special measures to protect the hundreds of workers on the scene from chemical exposure and to prevent toxic sludge from being carried offsite.
"We're worried about dysentery, we're worried about tetanus, we're worried about contamination," local fire Lt. Richard Burke, a spokesman for the operation, told reporters visiting the disaster site on Sunday. "The last thing we want to do is take any of these contaminants out of here and take them into town, back to our families."
Marla Skaglund, an Oso resident, told Al Jazeera that the threat of exposure to toxic contaminants has been ongoing.
“The hazmat (hazzardous materials) team has been here since the beginning,” she said. “The men have been using duct tape to tape their pants to their boots so everything is closed when they go in.”
Skaglund’s home is located next door to a house that was destroyed in the mudslide. She was home when the disaster hit and just yards away from being caught in the dangerous rush of mud and debris.
“It sounded like a big gust of wind, and I saw the power lines and poles across the road moving but the trees weren’t moving,” Skaglund said. “The lights went out and I thought someone had hit the pole. Then I walked outside and looked up the road, I saw all the debris and my aunt and uncle’s [old] house was just gone.”
Skaglund made the 9-11 call to alert authorities, and her home has become “grand central station” since the relief effort began.
Local residents haven’t had time to grieve, Skaglund said, they’ve been too busy working on the relief effort. Several benefits have been organized around the state to raise money for survivors.
Jason Biermann, program manager for the Snohomish County Emergency Management Department, said late on Sunday that the official loss of life so far included 15 victims whose remains have been identified by medical examiners and six more still awaiting positive identification.
He said four additional sets of remains were found on Sunday that for reasons not explained to reporters were being left out of the official tally of dead.
Authorities have offered conflicting casualty figures, and the process of accounting for the total number of victims has likely been complicated by the condition of some bodies that rescue workers have said are not always found intact.
They have in recent days reported locating a number of bodies that have not been included in the official death toll, previous to the four reported on Sunday, but have not provided further updates on the status of those remains.
No one has been pulled out alive and no signs of life have been detected since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived.
Officials have conceded it may be impossible to account for everyone lost in the disaster, and that some victims might end up being permanently entombed under the mound of muck and debris, which county authorities say covers 1 square mile.
Inslee said in a press release Monday that he has asked President Barack Obama to make assistance programs available to those affected by the mudslide.
Among the programs are disaster grants to help individuals afford disaster-related expenses not covered by home insurance.
Skaglund told Al Jazeera that one of the biggest concerns for affected residents is that typical homeowners insurance does not cover landslides — and many people had mortgages that they would be forced to continue paying even though their houses were destroyed.
Inslee referred questions about insurance coverage to the website of the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner, which states that homes are only insured for landslide, flood and earthquake damage if separate insurance policies covering those disasters are purchased.
"Your typical homeowner policy will not cover damage caused by land movement or a landslide due to: rain runoff, snow melt, flooding or earthquakes," the website said.
Official death count at 21 as workers search for more remains; authorities now say 30 are missing, down from 90
March 29, 20149:59PM ETUpdated March 30, 2014 10:00PM ET
The number of people who have been confirmed dead from the mudslide in Washington state has increased from 18 to 21, according to authorities.
Jason Biermann of Snohomish County Emergency Management said Sunday evening that 15 victims have been identified by the Snohomish County medical examiner, according to the Associated Press, and six have yet to be identified.
Biermann said another four bodies were found in the debris field on Sunday. According to Reuters, 28 bodies had been found as of Sunday morning. In a widespread disaster scene with many responding agencies, it is not unusual to have a disparity in numbers.
On Saturday, Snohomish County announced that the number of missing after a massive mudslide on March 22 had dropped from 90 to 30. The revised number perhaps provided the only positive news the rural county has seen in days, as workers continued to search through mountains of mud for the remains of the rest of the missing.
The search by heavy equipment, dogs and bare hands for victims was going "all the way to the dirt" on Saturday as crews looked for anything to provide answers for family and friends a week after the small mountainside community near Oso was destroyed.
All work on the debris field halted briefly Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost. Gov. Jay Inslee had asked people across Washington to pause at 10:37 a.m., the time the huge slide struck on March 22.
"People all over stopped work – all searchers — in honor of that moment, so people we are searching for know we are serious," Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.
An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.
Dan Rankin, mayor of the nearby logging town of Darrington, said the community had been "changed forevermore."
"It's going to take a long time to heal, and the likelihood is we will probably never be whole," he said.
"He was a giant man with a giant laugh," Kellie Howe said of Farnes.
Howe became friends with him when he moved to the area from Alaska. She said Adam Farnes was the kind of guy who would come into your house and help you do the dishes.
Adam Farnes also played the banjo, drums and bass guitar, she said, and had worked as a telephone lineman and a 911 dispatcher.
"He loved his music loud," she said. "They still have not found him or his mom. They're going through a hard time right now."
Finding and identifying all the victims could stretch on for a very long time, and authorities have warned that not everyone may ultimately be accounted for after one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.
Rescuers have given a cursory look at the entire debris field 55 miles northeast of Seattle, said Steve Harris, division supervisor for the eastern incident management team. They are now sifting through the rest of the fragments, looking for places where dogs should give extra attention. Only "a very small percentage" has received the more thorough examination, he said.
Dogs working four-hour shifts have been the most useful tool, Harris said, but they're getting hypothermic in the rain and muck.
"This is western Washington, folks," Harris said. "These people are used to rain."
Commanders are making sure people have the right gear to stay safe in the rain and potentially hazardous materials, and they're keeping a close eye on the level of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River to be sure nobody is trapped by rising water.
At the debris site Saturday, Mason, the battalion chief, said teams first do a hasty search of any wreckage of homes they find. If nothing is immediately discovered, they do a more detailed, forensic search.
"We go all the way to the dirt," he said.
Crews are also collecting bags of personal belongings that would later be cleaned, sorted and hopefully returned to families.
"What we found out here is everything from pictures to gun safes," Mason said. "Anything you would have at your house."
Crews also pleaded with the public not to show up and try to help. Only local volunteers are being allowed to help rescuers.
Joe Wright of Darrington set up his tool-sharpening operation near the firehouse. He's been busy. In a little more than a day, he estimated he had sharpened more than 150 chainsaw chains dulled by rocks and dirt.
"There were people using their own saws," Wright said. "They're just trying to get down there to get the job done."
Rankin, the Darrington mayor, said whenever the highway eventually reopens through the slide area, even if it follows a different path, the missing hillside will be a permanent reminder of what the community lost.
"That scar on the mountain will never heal," Rankin said, "and neither will the scar on our hearts."
Photos: Rescuers comb debris field in wake of Wash. mudslide
March 26, 201410:15AM ET
The death toll has climbed to 24 as rescuers continue to search for victims of the disastrous mudslide
With 24 people confirmed dead and 90 still missing four days after a massive mudslide buried homes near the rural Washington hamlet of Oso, residents, state officials and experts are beginning to look for answers as to what caused the disaster, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it.
Since Saturday, local government leaders have said repeatedly that there were few ways of knowing a slide this size — capable of risking the lives of hundreds — was a possibility.
But to those familiar with the mountains in the Oso area, as well as geomorphologists who’ve studied the causes of landslides, the event was far from surprising.
They say there were several warning signs that should have at least made local officials think twice about allowing people to live at the base of the mountain.
“I don’t think the fact that the slide happened surprised anyone who has looked at this area before,” said Doug Heiken, the conservation and restoration coordinator with Oregon Wild, a local nonprofit organization. “It wasn’t really a matter of if, but when.”
Heiken and others said that while it’s nearly impossible to know when and exactly where a landslide will happen, it was still very clear that the area of mountain across the Stillaguamish River from Steelhead Drive was at tremendous risk of breaking away.
The area where the mudslide occurred was known for the instability of its land.
A landslide in 2006 was large enough to send debris down the mountain and into the river. That mudslide didn’t damage any property, but new development has been permitted in the area since then, leading some to question whether local housing officials paid enough attention to the information that could have been gleaned from the past.
Some say, given the number of red flags raised over the years, the site should not have been considered safe by state and local governments, and perhaps left undeveloped.
A 2010 report commissioned by Snohomish County warned that the neighborhoods along Steelhead Drive were at great risk for being affected by a mudslide.
“For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity,” Rob Flaner, one of the report’s authors, told the Seattle Times.
There were other reports of the area’s potential for disaster as far back as the 1950s.
More recently, in 1999, a report filed to the Army Corps of Engineers warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”
“Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river,” one of the authors of that report told the Seattle Times.
Others had also warned that years of logging could weaken the root system of the hill and lower the ability of trees to absorb water, increasing the likelihood that the land could move if it was heavily saturated.
“In 1988, when they were logging, I wrote a letter to the [Washington State] Department of Natural Resources that said it could fail catastrophically,” said Paul Kennard, a geomorphologist with the National Parks Service who had previously worked for the fisheries department of the Tulalip Indian Tribes, which has citizens located in Snohomish County.
The hill where the landslide occurred, part of the larger mountain, was even known as “Slide Hill” by some local residents, and geologists called the area different names, including “Hazel Landslide,” and “Steelhead Haven Landslide.”
The widespread knowledge of the hill’s vulnerability has led many to question why local authorities permitted housing in the area.
However, Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management leader John Pennington defended the county’s actions earlier this week, saying that residents were well aware of the potential for a landslide, that the area was “considered very safe” and that this slide “came out of nowhere.”
The county's Department of Emergency Management and the Snohomish County Department of Planning and Development Services would not comment for this story.
But others say the warnings were clear enough that more could have been done.
“We need better communication between experts looking at risks like this and the people issuing building permits,” Heiken said. “The people who issued permits to the people living in this area were essentially issuing death sentences.”