Officials update death count; 30 still missing

ARLINGTON — As search crews comb through the Oso landslide debris field looking for victims, they are also bagging personal items to be returned to survivors.

Snohomish County is still working out the process for reconnecting owners with their possessions, a county spokeswoman said.

On Sunday, searchers found four more victims from the March 22 slide, but their bodies haven’t been retrieved yet, Jason Biermann, program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, told a news conference Sunday.

The official death toll is now 21, with 15 people formally identified by medical examiners, he said.

The list of missing and possible slide victims remains steady at 30, Biermann said.

Based on reports by officials and news media talking to family members, at least 31 people died in the slide.

An additional body-recovery team is coming from Colorado to help with processing remains, said Major General Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard.

New dog teams are also arriving to help searchers find victims.

“We’re doing all we can,” Daugherty said. “It’s absolutely difficult work. This will give some of our guys a breather.”

Heavy rains in recent days have hampered search efforts, creating several ponds in the debris field, Biermann said.

Crews unsuccessfully tried to drain the pools, which were too large, he said. “They’re waiting for them to drain naturally.”

The sun broke through intermittent clouds Sunday. Better weather is expected in the next few days, which will help searchers.

This month was the second-wettest March on record in Arlington and Darrington, Biermann said.

In Arlington this month, 7.7 inches of rain has been recorded. A typical March is 4.57 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Seattle.

In Darrington, 18.8 inches of rain has fallen. A typical March sees 7.26 inches.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Daugherty inspected the slide from the air on Sunday.

Inslee said rescue and recovery efforts will continue as people want to “find that miracle,” and if not a miracle, simply any information related to the whereabouts of loved ones.

During a news conference at the airport in Arlington, he said planning is just beginning for the long-term housing needs of those affected by the slide and for re-establishing Highway 530 between Darrington and Oso.

The plans for replacing the road will involve extensive public comment and will be sensitive to families which lost loved ones in the slide, Inslee said.

In the meantime, work crews have opened an access road connecting Oso to Darrington again. However, it is only open to traffic involved with disaster relief, Biermann said. That much traffic alone “is maxing out the road’s capacity.”

The Associated Press and Scott North contributed. Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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