ARLINGTON — Snohomish County authorities said that they had done all they could do to prevent landslides in the area wiped out last Saturday by a catastrophic mudslide, as they marshaled state and federal resources to bolster rescue and recovery efforts.
John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said plenty of resources were dedicated to mitigating risks following a major slide in 2006, and the effort was successful in preventing smaller slides. After that effort, “the community felt safe,” he said, adding that people here “fully understood the risk” of living in an area prone to floods and landslides.
But, he said, it’s unclear why a slide of Saturday’s magnitude occurred.
“We did everything we could do. Sometimes big slides happen,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “I’m not sure that we could have been more prepared to prevent a landslide of this magnitude,” Pennington said.
Pennington made his comments as the county has come under fire for allowing residential development in a zone on the banks of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River that was deemed unsafe by several studies, and where a tragic mudslide has now claimed at least 16 lives in what is shaping up to be the worst natural disaster in Washington state since the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.
Pennington also defended the county’s out-of-the-gate response to the disaster. Answering a question from a reporter about whether responders accurately gauged the amount of help they would need to deal with the mudslide early on, Pennington said that “we had to get a situational assessment on everything” in an area that was hard to reach. “None of us could get there.”
But it quickly became clear “we were getting overwhelmed,” he said. He pointed out that the local authorities managed to skirt bureaucratic traps to speed up response efforts. For example, the sheriff’s office insisted on calling an urban search and rescue team out of Tacoma that could be brought in immediately, even though procedures called for a FEMA team out of California that would have taken three or four days to get to the area, he said.
The official number of victims remained at 16, but Chief Travis Hots of Snohomish County Fire Districts 21/22 said Tuesday they believe they have located eight more bodies that have not been recovered. Authorities say 176 people have been reported missing after the massive mudslide came down from above the river, crossed over it, plowed through homes and onto Highway 530 about 11 a.m. Saturday.
Pennington said Wednesday that “nothing has changed overnight” in terms of official estimates, but responders were making “tremendous progress” in combing through the list of the missing, and that authorities would have an updated figure Wednesday afternoon. “I’m very confident that number will drop in the end,” Pennington said.
Pennington said he received strong support from the federal government, in the form of direct assistance to the response effort. “President Obama stepped away from a meeting overseas to talk about the land we’re standing on right now,” he said. “That is not common in the disaster world. “
He said he anticipated “very strongly that we will have a traditional federal disaster declaration,” which would unlock critical financial aid for homeowners and other survivors of the disaster, and help with the economic and infrastructure recovery of the area. That declaration should come “very soon,” he said, Pennington said he expects that there will be “centralized focal points” for federal and state assistance in the area.
At one point, Pennington grew tearful during the news conference as he talked about the community support for victims, survivors and first responders.
“It’s just humbling,” he said.
Pennington said the United Way has raised $75,000 for the community. He also said that Home Depot, Costco Wholesale and other local businesses “have really stepped up.”
Search and rescue crews are focusing today on the west side of the slide site. First responders are holding out little hope to find survivors; a state mortuary-assistance team has been called in to assist. Search crews have at times been kept from the area because of the threat that they too could be killed — there’s a concern that a cliff above might crumble and the mud in some areas is akin to quicksand.
Five people remain hospitalized at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. According to a news release issued this morning, a 22-week-old infant boy remains in critical condition but is improving, and his 25-year-old mother is in serious condition — both are in the intensive care unit. Two men, ages 81 and 37, remain in serious condition, also in the intensive care unit. A 58-year-old man is listed in satisfactory condition and was released from the ICU last night, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg.
Authorities also focused on reconnecting Darrington, a town on the east side of the mudslide that has been isolated by the disaster. Pennington said that county buses will start an emergency bus service to and from the town, providing a “critical line” for foodstuffs and other necessities. Snohomish county public works director Steve Thomsen said that the Mountain Loop Highway, which provides a second exit and entrance to the town, would be open at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Thomsen said that the river continues, as expected, to drain through the impoundment caused by the mudslide, which has trapped more than 120 billion cubic feet of water and during the weekend led the authorities to fear a disastrous flood if it suddenly broke through. Between Monday and Tuesday the water level dropped about half a foot, which “is good news,” Thomsen said. The water level needs to drop before geologists and other responders can safely wade through the area.