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US landslide toll set to rise, as missing sought

Update: March, 26/2014 - 11:00
Photo AP

ARLINGTON, United States – The death toll from a devastating US landslide is expected to rise from 14 as rescuers pick through a vast pile of mud and debris likened to quicksand, officials have said.

The number of people unaccounted for after Saturday's disaster still stood at 176, although officials stressed on Tuesday that may well include people double-counted or who turn up after being reported missing.

The National Guard joined local and state emergency workers raking through the mile square mudslide which smashed into the tiny town of Oso in the northwestern US state of Washington.

"I would just ask all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso and the families and friends of (the missing)," said President Barack Obama, who declared a state of emergency Monday.

Obama: 'tough situation'

"We hope for the best, but we recognize that this is a tough situation," he added in the Netherlands, where he was attending a nuclear security summit.

On Monday, the confirmed death toll rose from eight to 14 following the mudslide which hit the town of Oso in Snohomish County, 60 miles (95 kilometers) northeast of Seattle.

"We're expecting that number to go up throughout the day," Snohomish County fire district chief Travis Hots said at a morning briefing Tuesday.

A total of 49 dwellings in the rural town were hit by the one square mile (2.5 square kilometer) wall of mud, rocks and trees, which also destroyed part of a highway.

'I believe in miracles'

Authorities say they have 176 reports of people missing or unaccounted for – but stress that could include some double-counting as well as people who have not been in touch with relatives but eventually will turn up safe and sound. Three days on, officials insist finding survivors is still possible, even though none have been found since Saturday.

"I believe in miracles and I believe people can survive these events," said emergency management chief John Pennington, adding: "They've done it before, they can do it again."

One volunteer firefighter described the landslide as "quicksand, where you could easily sink up to your armpits."

He described seeing signs of structures peeking through a dense layer of fallen timber and earth, adding that it had blocked the Stillaguamish river, which had started to flood the Darrington area.

'Increasingly unstable'

"The rising river and floodwaters are making the slide areas nearest the banks increasingly unstable," the emergency worker, who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media said.

Obama declared a state of emergency in Washington state on Monday, ordering federal resources to join the local and state emergency services in tackling the disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will help "save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Snohomish County," said the White House.

New help Tuesday included over 60 National Guardsmen, and up to 100 volunteers, officials said.

Washington state governor Jay Inslee paid tribute to all the emergency services helping the rescue effort, from local to federal.

'Small-town, can-do spirit'

"There's a small town, can-do spirit here at work. It's good to have the White House as well," he said.

"We know we still have families in tremendous grief and anxiety, and we're going to do everything we can to relieve that as soon as humanly possible," he added.

The local fire chief said the rescue and recovery operation would be a long one, but pledged to try to find every last victim.

"This is going to be a very long-term event. This will be something that goes into the weeks," said Hots, adding: "We're going to do our very best to get everybody out of there."

Rain has been especially heavy in the Cascade Mountains region in the past weeks. The forecast is for more downpours in the coming days. — AFP

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