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Oso, Washington: Incredible before and after images of mudslide disaster that buried a town

Up to 176 people remain missing, as fire chief insists there is still hope for survivors in ‘rescue and recovery operation’
  • @adamwithnall

Rescue workers scouring the aftermath of a devastating mudslide in Washington state, US, have pulled more bodies from the rubble on the fifth day of the search, bringing the death toll up to a suspected 24.

Authorities say they have a list of 176 people who remain unaccounted for, yet refuse to rule out all hope that some may have survived in air pockets within the mud and debris.

Rescuers have deployed small bulldozers and search dog teams to the disaster site, where a state of emergency was declared by President Barack Obama yesterday, but officials say their best tools remain shovels and their own hands in the treacherous conditions.

The incident saw a huge chunk of hillside come crashing down through the remote town of Oso, around 55miles (90km) northeast of Seattle.

Speaking to reporters today, Snohomish County fire chief Travis Hots said: “We haven't lost hope that there's a possibility that we can find somebody alive in some pocket area.”

The official death toll remains at 16 after two more bodies were recovered on Tuesday, but Hots said eight had been located in the debris field today and that the toll would be revised once they too had been brought in by emergency workers.

At least 30 homes are believed to have been destroyed and 176 people are reported missing, though officials said some names may be duplicates.

There have been no signs of life on the scene since Saturday night, when darkness fell on cries for help coming from the mud. The calls had stopped by the time rescuers returned on Sunday morning.

Hundreds of rescuers and heavy equipment operators slogged through the muck and rain, following the search dogs over the unstable surface.

“Going on the last three days the most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people,” Hots said.

As the increasingly desperate search progressed, it emerged that there have been previous reports of the danger of potential landslides in the region.

A 2010 study commissioned by Snohomish County to comply with a federal law warned that neighbourhoods 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, said the report by California-based engineering and architecture firm Tetra Tech.

A further report, issued in 1999 by geomorphologist Daniel Miller, raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes in the area 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 Miller, who was hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers to do the study.