A scientist working for the government warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the Washington state fishing village where the collapse of a rain-soaked hillside over the weekend killed at least 24 people and left scores missing.
As rescue workers slogged through the muck and rain, finding 10 more victims late Tuesday, word of the 1999 report raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether officials had taken proper precautions.
"I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large magnitude event," though not when it would happen, said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. "I was not surprised."
He said in his report that the soil on the steep slope lacked any binding agent that would make it more secure, and that the underlying layers of silt and sand could give way in a "large catastrophic failure."
But he also cautioned: "I currently have no basis for estimating the probable rate or timing of future landslide activity."
In an interview Tuesday, Miller noted there are hundreds of similar landslides in Washington state each year, and this particular river valley has had three very large slides in the last three decades.
Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Seattle, said it appears that the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.
Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said: "We don't have jurisdiction to do anything. We don't do zoning. That's a local responsibility."
Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated village of Oso said they were not aware of the study but that residents and town officials knew the risks of living in the area.
In fact, the area has long been known as the Hazel Landslide because of landslides over the past half-century. The last severe one before Saturday's disaster was in 2006.
"A slide of this magnitude is very difficult to predict," county Public Works Director Steve Thomsen told The Seattle Times
, which first reported on Miller's analysis. "There was no indication, no indication at all."
No landslide warnings for the area were issued before the disaster, which came after weeks of heavy rain. The rushing wall of quicksand-like mud, trees and other debris flattened about two dozen homes and critically injured several people.
In looking for what might have led to the mudslide, authorities have identified a 1.1 magnitude earthquake that occurred in the area on March 10, but it remains unclear if that played a role in the disaster, John Pennington, Snohomish County's director of emergency management, told reporters.
David Montgomery, a geomorphologist with the University of Washington in Seattle, said "One of the things this tragedy should teach us is the need to get better information about geologic hazards out to the general public."
"Where are the potentially unstable slopes? How big a risk do they pose? And what should be done to let homeowners know about that?" Montgomery said.
Searchers continued to pick through the debris Tuesday, finding more bodies. They did not specify exactly how many they had found. "The number of victims has not yet been confirmed,"Snohomish County spokeswoman Shari Ireton said in a statement.
Authorities were working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.
Even as hopes dwindled of plucking anyone else out alive, about a dozen workers searched overnight for any of those reported missing since a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday, swallowing dozens of homes near Oso, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said.
Compounding the sense of urgency was a fear of flooding as water levels rose behind a crude dam of mud and rubble that had been dumped into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River by the slide in an area along State Route 530, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
"The operational plan for the day is going to be challenging. The weather's changed and we've got some rain coming in. That's going to make it even more challenging for our folks that are on the ground there," local fire chief Travis Hots told reporters.
Near the southern perimeter of the slide, volunteers from a logging crew gathered to help move debris with chainsaws, excavators, and other heavy equipment.
Gene Karger said he could see six orange flags in the debris field, marking bodies they would be pulling out. Karger, a logger most of his life, said it was the first time he was involved in this kind of rescue work.
"You see parts of their bodies sticking out of the mud. It's real hard. It's that bad," Karger said. "There are people out there we know."
Predicting landslides is difficult, so much so that damage from them is excluded from private insurance policies, 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 of the USGS report, Jonathan Godt, a research scientist with the agency in Colorado, said landslides don't get that much attention because they often happen in places where they don't hit anything.
But with Americans building homes deeper into the wilderness, he said, "there are more people in the way."
The disaster ranks as one of the deadliest U.S. landslides in recent years. Ten people died when falling earth engulfed homes in the coastal community of La Conchita, Calif. in 2005.
Authorities said they were hoping the number of people listed as missing would decline as some may have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts. Eight people were injured.
"I believe in miracles and I believe people can survive these events," Pennington said.
But after three days, the operation was shifting from a rescue operation to a recovery mission, officials said. Rescuers failed to locate any more people in the rubble by early Tuesday.
Hots said authorities were also turning back many volunteers due to unstable ground conditions and fears of another landslide that could sweep away people searching the mud and debris. More than 100 properties were hit by the mudslide.
"The last thing that we want to have happen is people showing up in their cars and sneaking up on the pile, and they're up there working independently on their own," he said.
Search crews and volunteers were "dealing with devastation" on the ground, said Pennington, the emergency management director, noting they cannot use heavy equipment because of the conditions and must work by hand.
A total of 156 workers were taking part in search and recovery efforts on Tuesday and 50 National Guard members were expected to join later in the day.
Quicksand-like conditions forced rescue workers to suspend their efforts at dusk on Sunday. Some workers, mired in mud up to their armpits, had to be dragged to safety.
Search crew workers were forced again to retreat briefly on Monday from the western edge of the slide area after movement was detected along a 1,500-foot stretch of earth.
President Barack Obama, who was in Europe for a meeting with world leaders, signed an emergency declaration ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and local relief efforts, the White House said.
Speaking at The Hague, where he was attending a summit, Obama began a news conference Tuesday by addressing the disaster in Washington state and asking Americans to "send their thoughts and prayers" to those affected by the disaster.
"We hope for the best, but we recognize this is a tough situation," he said.
The president also called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday to discuss the mudslide, Inslee's office said.
Meanwhile, a 22-week-old baby hurt in the slide remained in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being taken there by helicopter along with his mother, who also was hurt, the hospital said.
The landslide was not the first to hit an inhabited area in Washington state. More than 100 houses were destroyed by a slow-moving landslide in the town of Kelso in the late 1990s. But that was in a different part of the state.
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