By Eric Stevick and Bill Sheets Herald Writers
OSO — The man leading the search of the debris fields said Wednesday that some victims of the March 22 Oso mudslide might never be found.
“We have prepared the victims’ families that we may not find everybody,” said Larry Nickey, the Olympic National Park fire management officer who last week took command of the search-and-rescue efforts.
Nickey has been meeting each day with families awaiting word about loved ones buried in the mammoth slide. Their emotions have varied from acceptance and silence to anger, and that spectrum is “very typical” in such a catastrophic event, Nickey said.
The toll of those officially confirmed dead rose to 29 Wednesday, with 25 officially identified. There are 13 people still officially missing.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama declared the Oso mudslide a major disaster, making federal programs available to help individuals and businesses affected by the slide.
The declaration also provides help for debris removal and emergency measures such as barricades, sand bags and safety personnel, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
In seeking more federal assistance Monday, Inslee said in his request that about 30 families need help with housing and other needs.
The slide and subsequent flooding have caused at least $32.1 million in damage to public infrastructure, according to preliminary assessments by state and federal authorities.
At the regular evening news conference Wednesday, officials stressed the importance of registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take advantage of the federal aid.
Money might be available not only for those directly affected by the mudslide — those who lost property or loved ones — but also people economically inconvenienced by volunteer work or commuting miles because of the closure of Highway 530, for example.
Also, volunteers who pitched in to help instead of going to their regular jobs might be eligible for reimbursement.
There are two ways people can register for possible federal aid:
Go to www.disaster assistance.gov.
John Pennington, the Snohomish County emergency management director, said that all individuals, organizations and governments should register if they have suffered losses or incurred expenses related to the landslide and recovery work.
Richard Burke, a Bellevue Fire Department spokesman assigned to help with the search for victims and belongings, told reporters at the news conference that the search for victims of the landslide “will continue for the foreseeable future.”
With drier weather, searchers have been increasingly successful in using a grid of the site, covering both the surface and well below ground.
Crews have marked search areas into sections, said John Bentley, a Maryland-based official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Pink flags mark areas where searches have not started or are not finished, while green flags mean the search of that area has been completed.
The most effective tool in the search has four legs and a remarkable sense of smell.
“The best technology we have right now is those dogs,” Nickey said, referring to search dogs trained to find bodies.
Searchers continue to follow the mudflow pattern of the slide to find victims’ possessions and parts of homes, mainly in the farthest reaches of the slide. Those discoveries have led to the recovery of bodies, Nickey said.
Search crews have been aided by dry weather the past few days, but they’re concerned about the change that’s coming.
Rain is forecast in the North Fork Stillaguamish valley every day from Thursday through Sunday, said Lt. Rob Fisher of Snohomish County Fire District 7, one of the search crew leaders.
Teams took advantage of the sun on Wednesday to work on a ditching system to funnel out as much of the rainwater as possible when it returns, he said.
The past few days of dry weather were a big help to crews as huge, standing pools of water as much as 30 feet deep shrunk to expose more areas for possible search, officials said.
“You can’t do anything in the water,” Fisher said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.