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US landslide towns divided by mud, united by grief
by Staff Writers
Arlington, United States (AFP) April 01, 2014

US landslide dead now at 24: official
Los Angeles (AFP) April 01, 2014 - The confirmed death toll from a huge US landslide rose to 24 Monday, while 22 others were still missing more than a week after the disaster in Washington state.

The last official toll, on Sunday, had stood at 21 dead and 30 missing.

The remains of three more fatal victims were found, authorities told a briefing late Monday. But they are not being counted in the official toll until they are formally identified by the county's medical examiner's office.

Among the dead, 18 of the bodies have been identified, Snohomish County officials said.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee meanwhile asked President Barack Obama for a major disaster declaration in Snohomish County to make federal programs available to individuals, households and businesses hurt by the landslide.

A federal emergency declaration last week cleared the way for a federal disaster team and specialized personnel including the emergency management agency FEMA.

Dozens of dwellings in the rural town located 60 miles (95 kilometers) from Seattle were wiped out in the March 22 landslide, which was so ferocious that it also destroyed part of a highway.

Rescue workers have been working in tough conditions for more than a week -- the sludge was so thick in places that rescuers themselves have had to be saved from being swallowed up.

"We're still in shock, really," says Ben Sullivan.

As the likely death toll from the monster landslide in the picture postcard valley town of Oso climbs into the dozens, that's a common feeling round here, more than a week after the catastrophe.

"We all know someone who died, or is still missing," added Sullivan, who ran a bake sale Sunday with his sister Bea next in nearby Arlington, to raise funds for families of the victims.

Heart-wrenching stories of victims and survivors of the massive mudslide have emerged.

One of the most tragic is that of Natasha Huestis, whose four-month-old daughter Sanoah and mother, who was babysitting for the infant, died at home while she was out.

"I wanted to be a good mom, like my mom," the 26-year-old told the local Herald newspaper at the weekend.

Pointing to a photo of her baby, she said: "Isn't she beautiful? She was just learning to roll. And she was teething, so we were waiting for her first tooth."

Ironically, while the tragedy -- one of the most deadly landslides in US history -- has united the community in grief, it has also physically divided folk in the valley from the two towns either side of it.

That is because the vast slab of rain-soaked hillside crashed down on the main road between Arlington to the west and Darrington to the east, making it impassable since the March 22 disaster.

Before the landslide the trip was an easy 30 minutes on state route 530. Now the trip takes up to two hours around smaller roads meandering into the Cascade Mountains.

Darrington, set amid snow-capped peaks and surrounded by the forests which supply the region's logging industry, is an extra hour at least from Seattle, 60 miles (95 kilometers) to the south.

"We all have family and friends in Oso and down in Arlington," said Pam, who would only give her first name, after shopping at the nearby Darrington IGA grocery store, next to the town's fire house.

Before the landslide, when Darrington people popped down the less mountainous Arlington, they talked about "going down there" or "going down below."

Blayne Parris, whose family has run the Blue Bird Cafe in Arlington's main street for generations, said of his Darrington friends: "It's not coming down anymore, it's going around."

The road to Oso from either Arlington or Darrington ends at roadblocks a mile or two before the mudslide area itself. Only workers heading for the "pile," as it is known, are allowed through.

Yellow ribbons flutter in the breeze, tied around trees and hedges along Route 530, which locals have used as their name for the disaster: the 530 slide.

A short distance before the Arlington end of the blocked-off area stands the Oso Community Chapel, where workers are busy loading water and foodstuffs into vans and cars to take to families in need.

Jerry Graber, the chapel's board president, said they had raised $20,000 since the catastrophe. One of his church's young members was among the 30 people still missing.

"We are a strong community. Everybody helps out in a crisis like this," he told AFP.

The community may be strong, but the local economy has struggled. Tourism and logging provide crucial income in the region, close enough to the US border that you can pick up Canadian radio.

"It could devastate it," said Bea Sullivan, packing up her baked-goods stall after a day of fund-raising with her brother on the green at the end of Arlington's main street.

"It hasn't been doing very well, even before this happened," added Graber, noting that the 530 is a key transport route for loggers to and from the huge lumber mill in Darrington. "That would be a disaster if the mill closed," he said.

At the Blue Bird Cafe, the front window is filled with a tied yellow ribbon with "Darrington" on one side, "Arlington" on the other, and "Oso" in the middle, under the slogan "Hold on to Hope."

Inside, its burly manager said that is becoming increasingly difficult, and most people acknowledge only bodies will now be found.

"I wouldn't say they've given up hope," said Parris, but added: "It's been more than a week now, the toll keeps going up, everybody knows in the back of their mind that it' now recovery and not rescue.

The official death toll rose to 24 on Monday, and is expected to rise significantly, with 22 people still missing.

One recovery operations manager, Steve Harris, said Monday that four to six bodies were being recovered every day.

He also acknowledged that, because of the sheer force of the landslide, bodies were not always intact.

"It's very difficult, in some of the finds that they're making, to make identification," he said.

"You had whole-sized cars compacted down to the size of a refrigerator .. there was just an incredible amount of energy as the material came down."


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US landslide death toll rises to 21
Arlington, United States (AFP) March 31, 2014
The confirmed death toll from a huge US landslide rose from 18 to 21 on Sunday, while four more bodies were located but not counted in the official tally, authorities said. Thirty people remain missing after a rain-soaked wall of mud, trees and debris crashed down onto the edge of the town of Oso, in Washington state, on March 22. A few survivors were found immediately after the mudslide ... read more

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