Downpour works against search effort in Oso

ARLINGTON – Heavy rain hampered rescue efforts at the Oso mudslide Friday.

Officials were keeping a close eye on the hillside, reporting some “sloughing” in the afternoon while hundreds of searchers continued to look for signs of up to 90 missing people.

The official death count stands at 17. But another body was found in the field on Friday, which puts the total of known dead at 26. Late Friday, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner added a sixth name to the official list of the identified dead. He is Joseph R. Miller, 47, of Oso.

Gov. Jay Inslee called for a moment of silence at 10:37 a.m. Saturday — a week since the slide crashed into dozens of homes.

At the regular evening news conference, Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said he believes crews are finding more bodies in the sodden debris but that the process from extraction to identification by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office is very slow.

He said officials want to hold out hope for survivors, but “at some point we have to expect the worst.”

Meanwhile, searchers from other states were expected to join rescue efforts. A team of 16 was deployed from the Colorado National Guard. Nearly 60 people from the Washington National Guard continued to search the slide from the west side. An additional 50 guardsmen were expected to join the search.

Rescue dogs were on the east side, searching for the missing.

Searchers are working in a square-mile tangle of mud, downed trees and pulverized homes. They are looking for the people who were below the hill when it fell March 22.

“The rain and the wind and the weather is basically working against us,” Travis Hots, chief of Arlington Rural fire department, said at the morning briefing about the operations.

The slide continues to block Highway 530. Crews are building a makeshift road to connect the west and east operations. The route skirts the debris field, partially on a power line right-of-way.

That service road is only for use by searchers and is not open to the public, Hots said.

He thanked the community for the outpouring of support for those harmed by the slide. The best way to help at this time is to make a cash donation because so many have lost so much, he said.

Some reporters Friday morning began to grill Hots about the way information about the dead has been shared, which prompted an announcement by Haakenson in the evening that the names of confirmed dead will be passed from the medical examiner’s office to the county public-information team at 4:30 p.m. every day, followed by release of the information at 6 p.m.

Hots acknowledged that people have access to scanner traffic and social media, and that more information is available to those who go looking.

“I can’t give you numbers … off of a social media site,” Hots said. The medical examiner is responsible for information about deaths in the community, and its protocols exist for a reason, he said.

“This is a sensitive situation for people who have lost their loved ones,” he said.

Everett police Lt. Robert Goetz, who is helping support the slide response, put an end to the questioning.

“Families have been advised of the process. They are understanding,” he said.

“They understand it, so I hope you do,” he told reporters.

John Pennington, Snohomish County’s emergency management director, had asked county prosecutors for a legal opinion on whether the names of the missing can be released, Hots said. But at the evening news conference, Haakenson said there are no plans to release that list.

A Seattle hospital official provided some good news Friday afternoon, saying that a five-month-old baby rescued the first day was breathing on his own.

His mother and two others remained at Harborview Medical Center. Their conditions also are improving.

As the days stretch on, volunteers continue working to help families and the community deal with their grief. The Red Cross has set up mental health assistance services in Darrington. The services are located across the street from the Darrington Ranger District offices.

Other specialists also are on hand, including teams of specially trained trauma dogs and handlers. Some have worked in other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“There is no lack of people that need support and help,” said Mary Schoenfeldt, who works for the City of Everett and a trauma specialist with Green Cross Academy of Traumatology.

People will be grieving and coping in different ways, she said.

“We’re trying to make sense of the senseless,” Schoenfeldt said.

Meanwhile, it appears some relief is coming for those heading up the search and rescue efforts.

Larry Nickey, Olympic National Park fire management officer, is to take command at the Oso mudslide beginning Saturday at 6 a.m.

“It’s a difficult operation to do, but you do the best you can to make sure you have a good outcome, as good an outcome as we can to reunite loved ones with family, which at this point, unfortunately, may be deceased,” Nickey, 55, told The Peninsula Daily News.

Nickey will head up the battalion of 300 search-and-rescue personnel.

Relief efforts continued in Darrington. The Southern Baptist Convention’s disaster relief people showed up with a trailer and are cooking up three meals a day for folks in the community.

They were also making sack lunches to send out to first responders working on the slide. On Friday afternoon, they were warming up pizza and chopping veggies for giant bowls of salad while another volunteer was putting whipped cream on a few pies.

Fred Sandow, of Camano Island, decided to let his son Michael Sandow, 16, and Michael’s girlfriend, Whitney Smith, 16, take the day off from Stanwood High School Friday to head up to Darrington to help out whereever they could.

They ended up at the food bank working side by side with teenagers from Darrington.

“Obviously we can’t get out in the dirt and mud,” Sandow said. “But the support stuff, – obviously there’s a need.”

Missing people

Officials ask that people with information about missing persons call the sheriff’s office tip line at 425-388-3845.

A hotline also been set up for people who need counseling: 800-584-3578.

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