Only a few dozen people working in recovery effort

  • Wed Apr 23rd, 2014 8:30pm
  • News

By Scott North and Rikki King Herald Writers

OSO — At the site of Snohomish County’s worst-ever disaster, crews Wednesday continued to dig for the bodies of two missing people even as others focused on packing up and preparing to head home.

For much of the past month, the mile-wide debris field at Oso has been bustling with hundreds of emergency workers sent from throughout the country.

On Wednesday, only a few dozen people were working the pile. The relative silence, normal for this picturesque river valley in spring, was in sharp contrast to the activity seen here in recent weeks.

Teams operating seven track hoes were focused on a tangle of logs, earth and other debris on the slide’s southwest edge. The area is on the opposite side of the valley from the hill that collapsed March 22, more than a mile away.

Analysis of how the mudslide traveled plus alerts from search dogs prompted crews to pore over the area for signs of the missing, said Howard Hunter, a spokesman working at the slide as part of a state Department of Natural Resources incident management team.

An area on the east side of the slide also is considered a hot spot for similar reasons, Hunter said, but a blanket of sand and clay is still so soggy it likely would swallow heavy equipment.

So far, 41 people have been recovered and identified as victims of the mudslide. Missing are Steven Hadaway, 53, who had been installing a satellite TV dish at a home along Steelhead Drive, and Kris Regelbrugge, 44, whose husband’s body already has been recovered.

County leaders had scheduled a press conference Wednesday afternoon to talk about the future of work at the site. They canceled those plans before noon. Speculation was that the local officials would be again resuming control of the operation, though federal support teams are expected to stay for weeks, perhaps months.

More than 100 survivors have registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Other community groups and nonprofits have provided services such as financial help, food, transportation, spiritual and emotional care, and funeral funding.

The National Flood Insurance Program is working on damage claims related to the slide. FEMA encourages homeowners to file claims with their insurance companies as soon as possible.

Nearly $400,000 has been approved in federal loans for survivors and small businesses, officials said.

Geologists continue to monitor the site.

Mudslide victim Amanda Skorjanc, 25, also has been readmitted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a hospital spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Skorjanc and her baby, Duke Suddarth, suffered severe injuries in the slide and survived, spending weeks at hospitals.

The track-hoe teams at work Wednesday sorted through the soil one bucket at a time. The equipment operators would carefully spread the soil for inspection by ground crews ready to recover anything that appeared significant. A search dog also could be seen examining the earth.

Across the valley, a pair of track hoes on pontoons worked to clear the North Fork Stillaguamish River, which remains blocked by mud, trees and debris. The crews are attempting to open a channel for the river.

On the east side of the slide closer to Darrington, a convoy of National Guard troops was spotted pulling out of an area where up until a few days ago they had been working from tents.

Parts of Highway 530 have been cleared down to the blacktop, though the road remains impassable. On Wednesday, a mangled yellow “School Bus Stop Ahead” sign was propped up along what used to be the highway shoulder.

A bluff bordering the highway showed places where mud climbed 30 to 40 feet as it hit the valley’s south side.

Nearby, the dirt held remnants from the homes it destroyed: a decorative duck decoy; a green and white soccer ball; a mangled motorcycle.

Elsewhere, stacks of twisted, mud-covered metal were all that was left of cars and trucks swallowed by the slide.

The landscape bears the signs of the search effort, including parts of makeshift roads that crews built to buoy heavy equipment atop the mud.

The technique involved placing whole logs, side-by-side onto the ooze, constructing platforms that were half-raft, half- roadway. Equipment operators would guide the track hoes out onto the logs, dig in a search grid, then disassemble the structures as they worked back toward firm ground, Hunter said.

Amid the devastation, there were signs of life.

Leaves are beginning to bud on the alder. Bright yellow skunk cabbage blossoms could be spotted in low-lying areas.

At one home outside Darrington, along Highway 530, the front yard was a riot of pink blossoms in an orchard of plum and cherry trees.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com.