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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Searches resume for 8 missing in Swiss Alps landslide
By Miguel Medina with Nina Larson in Geneva
Bondo, Switzerland (AFP) Aug 25, 2017


Go fetch! Drones help Swiss rescue dogs find the missing
Winterberg, Switzerland (AFP) Aug 25, 2017 - Capo, a golden retriever wearing a bright orange rescue harness, runs with his handler in tow towards a body sprawled in the high grass as a giant drone whirrs overhead.

The scene was part of a simulated dog rescue operation this week aimed at highlighting the rapidly growing use of drones to help speed up and expand such searches in Switzerland.

The exercise took place on Wednesday, the same day as a massive landslide on the Piz Cengalo mountain in the Swiss Alps that left eight people missing and triggered a search-and-rescue mission where dogs and drones were deployed.

"The main benefit is to gain more time, to be more efficient and to be faster to find the missing person," Dominique Peter, a pilot with the Swiss Federation of Civil Drones, told AFP.

The federation has for nearly a year been working with the Swiss Association for Search and Rescue Dogs (Redog), providing drone teams to help with search-and-rescue.

Since then they have assisted with 12 out of 22 Redog missions.

- Nose on the ground -

"This allows us to have an eye in the air and a nose on the ground," Redog president Romaine Kuonen told AFP.

Her colleague Christa Koller said the goal is to have drones on all missions.

She pointed out that the drones are particularly useful for searches around cliffs and other areas in the Swiss Alps that are too dangerous for dogs and their handlers to access.

The drones, with their mounted high-definition and infrared cameras, can also quickly survey flat, open areas, leaving the dogs to search in wooded terrain where the drones cannot fly.

Wearing a bright orange and yellow emergency worker jumpsuit, Peter expertly steered the Matrice 600, a large, professional-level drone made by the world-leading civilian drone maker DJI, over a vast field.

An accompanying search specialist surveys the footage and communicates by mobile phone with Capo's Redog handler Marie Sarah Beuchat to let her know which direction to send the dog.

Many high-end drones like the Matrice 600 can fly up to 100 kilometres per hour and five kilometres distant from their controllers, allowing them to quickly cover large areas.

"This can save lives," Peter said.

And while the drones used by the rescue teams can cost up to 30,000 euros ($35,000) each, Kuonen insisted that using them saves money because they speed up searches and can often be deployed instead of costly helicopters.

Peter stressed though that the drones are meant to complement the work of the dogs, not to replace them.

A dog is a "very well-engineered tool for search and rescue," he said, voicing scepticism that researchers will be able to develop an artificial nose that can measure up to that of a canine.

Rescue workers on Friday resumed their search for eight people still missing after a massive landslide in the Swiss Alps while dozens of evacuees waited to return home.

The massive search and rescue operation, involving more than 100 emergency workers equipped with infrared cameras and mobile phone detectors, helicopters and rescue dogs, had been halted overnight for safety reasons.

The landslide, which struck early Wednesday, sent rocks and mud flooding down the Piz Cengalo mountain into the outskirts of Bondo, a village near the Italian border.

The eight missing, who come from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were hiking in the Val Bondasca region at the time.

Local police said they had set off in separate groups.

- Pessimism -

According to Anna Giagometti, mayor of Bregaglia -- a municipality that encompasses Bondo -- paths in the area had been flagged as "dangerous" earlier this month due to falling rocks.

Speaking to the Blick daily, she said warning signs in several languages had been posted in the village.

There had been fears over the fate of another six people but police said late Thursday they had been found safe on the Italian side of the border.

Police and residents said mobile phone coverage in the area was spotty, voicing hope it could explain why those still missing had not been in touch.

But Swiss President Doris Leuthard, who examined the site from the air on Thursday, admitted the probability that the hikers were dead "is increasing by the hour," Blick reported.

Dramatic footage showed an entire mountainside disintegrating, unleashing an unstoppable mass of thick mud and sludge that tore up trees and demolished at least one building in its path.

Police said 12 farm buildings, including barns and stables, had been destroyed, while the Graubunden canton's main southern highway was closed to traffic.

- Deafening bang -

"It was terrible," Elisa Nunzi told Blick after witnessing the landslide from her home in a higher-altitude village.

The 27-year-old said she heard a deafening bang that sent rocks pouring down the mountain. "There were so many. It did not stop," she said.

Christian Speck, manager of a hotel in Soglio, several kilometres from Bondo, also witnessed the mountainside collapsing.

"At breakfast time, my customers and I saw rocks come lose from the mountainside and slide towards Bondo, in a huge cloud of smoke," he told AFP.

The landslide set four million cubic metres (141 million cubic feet) of mud and debris in motion, its relentless mass stretching 500 metres (1,640 feet) across, according to the regional natural hazards office (AWN).

The event was so severe that the vibrations set off seismometers across Switzerland, measuring the equivalent of a 3.0 magnitude earthquake, according to the Swiss Seismological Service.

- Melting permafrost? -

Experts hinted that climate change could be partially to blame for the disaster, with melting permafrost and an adjacent glacier likely destabilising the landmass.

An alert system put in place after a previous large landslide in the area in late 2011 allowed the authorities to quickly sound the alarm and evacuate around 100 people from Bondo and two Alpine cabins, amid fears of fresh landslides.

The evacuees, who are being hosted in private homes, hotels, hospitals and churches, are still waiting to hear when they will be allowed back home.

Simona Rauch, a Protestant minister at a church in Val Bregaglia, told AFP that residents did not expect to be gone so long.

"People left immediately, leaving everything behind. They didn't bring anything because they thought they would be returning quickly," she said.

"No one expected this kind of catastrophe."

DISASTER MANAGEMENT
'It could have been me': S.Leone struggles to recover from disaster
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Gathered in a Freetown church, worshippers struggled Sunday to come to terms with the devastation wrought by the flooding and mudslide that struck the Sierra Leone capital six days ago, as the arduous search for bodies continued. "I just close my eyes and imagine, I say, 'It could have been me'," says Angela Johnson, one of about 50 parishioners at St Paul's Catholic Church in Regent, the hi ... read more

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