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Oso mudslide recovery continues

From left, Steve Westlake and John Pennington, of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, listen as Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert addresses the press on March 26, to report how her community continues to react to the Oso mudslide on March 22. - Kirk Boxleitner
From left, Steve Westlake and John Pennington, of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, listen as Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert addresses the press on March 26, to report how her community continues to react to the Oso mudslide on March 22.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — Search and rescue crews are continuing their efforts in the wake Oso mudslide on March 22, and officials have revised the number of people still missing from 176 to 90. Officials said that there are 16 confirmed dead and believe they have located, but not yet recovered, an additional nine victims.

Steve Westlake, operations section chief for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, noted that the National Guard assisted with air and ground operations on the west side of the slide on March 26. Rescue dogs were also part of that group during the day, and while Westlake deemed those dogs extremely helpful, he noted that the dogs will be moved to the east side of the slide on March 27.

"One of the issues we've had with them is that they're getting very fatigued, very early, due to the type of terrain and mud and debris that they're on," Westlake said of the rescue dogs. "So, we made a different plan to help the dogs last longer through the day."

Westlake acknowledged that crews were challenged on March 26 by a service road that they're attempting to establish, but he asserted that their efforts will prove worthwhile by eventually providing them with greater access to the areas impacted by the slide, thereby facilitating quicker search and rescue operations.

Westlake also remarked upon the volume of people from around the Darrington area who have volunteered their aid.

"At this time, we're requesting that we don't need any more workers, because we have enough," Westlake said. "We can't put too many people out there, because we can't safely manage them. I will say that the people who have come in from the east and west sides to assist us, and have integrated into our system, have been an extreme help."

John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, introduced not only Kurt Hardin, state coordinating officer for the Washington Emergency Management Division, but also Jacqueline Gladish and Mike Hall, respectively the deputy federal coordinating officer and federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I told you we would introduce the team that's going to help pull this all together and move us forward after the disaster," Pennington said. "I'm very privileged to work with them. I've done it in the past — not in this capacity, unfortunately — but you have a very solid team that's going to move forward."

Crews did not recover any further victims on March 26, leaving the total number of confirmed fatalities at 16, although Pennington reiterated that they believe they've located nine additional bodies.

"Our missing persons specialists have made a tremendous amount of progress in reconciling the numbers of people reported missing," Pennington said on March 26. "Last night, we had let you know there were approximately 176 reports that had been made, of individuals to our Call Center, of people who were missing or unaccounted for. We were able to successfully verify that 140 people who were on that list were actually also registered on the SafeAndWell.org site. So, 140 people are safe and well."

While the numbers of people reported missing fluctuated from as low as 130 to as high as 220 on March 25, Pennington reported on March 26 that 90 people are confirmed as missing or unaccounted for.

"In addition to that, we also have 35 people whose status is still unknown at this time," Pennington said. "I'd like to define that the way it was defined to me. Ninety people are currently missing, identified as individuals who were throughout the community or in the area, who are known as missing individuals. Thirty-five people's status is still unknown."

Pennington believes the number of missing persons could decrease further, but "at least we're getting a clearer picture of the number of individuals that are out there, that we need to focus on at this point." Indeed, he confirmed that the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management Call Center closed at 1 p.m. on March 26 because "we were so successful with the Call Center that its function has served its purpose. We have all of the names that we need."

Pennington advised those with any additional information to call the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office tip line at 425-388-3845.

At the same time that the Call Center shut down, the Mountain Loop Highway opened at 1 p.m. on March 26.

"We want people to remember that this is a very rural mountain highway," Pennington said. "There are a lot of bumps. It's a one-lane gravel road. There are turnouts. In short, the people who live in these communities already know about this road, but for those who may be visiting the area, or in the process of responding here, where they have to utilize the Mountain Loop road, we would like to remind them that it is a very dangerous one-lane road that is made of gravel. Watch your speed. Watch the turns. You're on gravel, not concrete."

March 26 also saw the establishment of a task force to remove the debris from State Route 530, which is set to include members of the federal, state and local governments, whom Pennington promised will prioritize both the recovery of victims from the road and the reopening of the road.

Pennington reported that Helping Hands, located at 18722 59th Ave. NE in Arlington, is accepting donations, and distributing them to those affected by the slide, from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He also noted that the approximately 350 customers who ordinarily receive home delivery in Oso may pick up their mail at the Darrington Post Office, which is located at 715 Givens Ave. and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, so long as they provide valid identification. The Department of Licensing will also be in Darrington from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 26, for those individuals who need to have their IDs replaced.

Safeway showed its support for Darrington by making a $20,000 donation to Mayor Dan Rankin at 5:30 p.m. on March 26, to assist in emergency response and recovery efforts, while Community Transit plans to begin emergency bus service to and from Darrington this week, via Route 231, connecting Darrington residents with groceries, pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies in Skagit County, as well as with the job center in Arlington. More details are available at www.communitytransit.org.

Pennington closed his prepared remarks by repeating his previous pitch for the 24/7 Crisis Care Hotline at 800-584-3578, for all those in the community who have been affected by the slide, whether physically, materially, mentally or emotionally.

"These are tight-knit communities," Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert said. "We're in this for the long haul. Our communities are going to be healing for a very long period of time. This is a lot of people to have missing. There'll be a lot of needs that will have to be met, so the cash donations that are coming in are truly what are going to sustain them, as they try to rebuild their lives, if that's even possible. We've had people reach out from all over the world. I've heard from mayors in New Zealand, asking how their communities can help. We got a couple of very large cash donations today, from local businesses and local tribes. Boeing has reached out. These kinds of things are making our communities feel hopeful, and letting us know that we're not alone in this."

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