Rescuers searching for 90 people still missing five days after a massive mudslide in Washington state braced the public Thursday for an impending steep rise in the death toll even as they deflected criticism of the early disaster response.

At least 25 people are known to have died when a rain-drenched hillside collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a wall of mud that engulfed dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, 90 km northeast of Seattle.

Only the first 16 victims recovered and examined by coroners have been formally counted among the dead, but nine more bodies have since been found.