Mudslide deaths expected to soar as some question disaster response

Brenda Moe looks on after placing a cross with a yellow ribbon for victims of the Oso, Washington mudslide on her front lawn (Reuters)

Two local politicians, state Representative Elizabeth Scott and Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein, told the Seattle Times that county authorities had wasted time by failing to quickly recognize the scope of the disaster and opting to handle it on their own, without seeking more experienced outside help.

The state National Guard's commanding officer offered to deploy a 50-member search team on Saturday, an offer local emergency management officials did not accept until Monday, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department said.

Spokeswoman Karina Shagren said while county officials did not initially grasp the magnitude of the devastation, there was no room for more personnel at the site because of the dangers of quicksand-like conditions and fears of further slides.

"There wasn't a resources issue, there was a safety issue," she told Reuters.

FEMA's Minor also defended the handling of the situation, saying the first day of any disaster is always marked by a level of confusion and disarray. He called Snohomish County's response "outstanding."

"They knew what they wanted. They asked for it. And when we got here, they knew what our mission was and they gave us our mission. And that doesn't always happen," Minor said. "To say that we could've, should've or might have been here earlier - no, it's about what it takes."

He said the hours required to mobilize a distant FEMA and National Guard team means that "we aren't going to be here on day one." The FEMA crew was activated on Monday, he said.

RAW EMOTIONS

With spirits dimming as they days wore on, emotions were running raw among loved ones of the dead and missing, and the crews of people searching for them.

Jessica Neal, 30, said she found comfort from Wednesday's recovery of the body of her father-in-law, Steve Neal, a hot water heater installer who was working at a house hit by the slide, and in learning that he apparently did not suffer long.

"The coroner had details that it was fast," she said as she fought back tears.

Shayne Barco, 37, a search team member from Bellingham who arrived at the site on Monday with his trained search dog, a German shepherd named Stratus, said he has labored to keep his emotions pushed to the side while he works.

"It really doesn't hit you until the day's over," he said. "We're out there digging through people's lives, doing the best we can to bring closure to some of the families. It's just take it day by day, chunk by chunk of debris."

Community members assembled late Wednesday to offer prayers for the missing.

"We know, and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of our people are not going to make it," Megan Fanning, 41, said at the gathering in nearby Darrington. "But please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would be wonderful."

Reuters