ARLINGTON, WASHINGTON – A scientist working for the government issued a warning 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the northwestern U.S. fishing village where the collapse of a rain-soaked hillside over the weekend killed at least 16 people and left scores missing.
Rescuers slogging through muck and rain Tuesday in an increasingly desperate search for survivors instead recovered two bodies and believe they have located another eight, a local fire official said.
The announcement by Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots put the official death toll at 16, with the possibility of 24 dead once the other bodies are confirmed.
The grim discoveries further demoralized the four-day search, as the threat of flash floods or another landslide loomed over the rescuers. With scores still missing, authorities are working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.
With the grim developments came word of the 1999 report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller, raising questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether proper precautions had been taken.
“I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large magnitude event,” though not when it would happen, said Daniel Miller, who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”
Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated fishing village of Oso said that they were not aware of the study.
But John Pennington, director of the county Emergency Department, said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners “were very aware of the slide potential.”
In fact, the area has long been known as the “Hazel Landslide” due to the frequent occurrence of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday’s disaster was in 2006.
“We’ve done everything we could to protect them,” Pennington said.
Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said it appears that the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.
Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said: “We don’t have jurisdiction to do anything. We don’t do zoning. That’s a local responsibility.” No landslide warnings for the area were issued before the disaster, which came after weeks of heavy rain.