ARLINGTON, WASH.: A mountainside community waited in anguish Friday to learn the full scope of the Washington state mudslide as authorities worked to identify remains and warned that they were unlikely to find anyone alive nearly a week after the disaster.
Leslie Zylstra said everybody in town knows someone who died, and the village was coming to grips with the fact that many of the missing will never turn up.
“The people know there’s no way anybody could have survived,” said Zylstra, who used to work in an Arlington hardware store. “They just want to have their loved ones, to bury their loved ones.”
Authorities delayed an announcement that they said would substantially raise the death toll to allow the Snohomish County medical examiner’s office to continue with identification efforts.
That job, along with the work of the exhausted searchers, was complicated by the sheer magnitude of the devastation from Saturday’s slide. Tons of earth and ambulance-sized boulders of clay smashed everything in their path, leaving unrecognizable remnants in their wake.
“There’s a process that we have in place, and I don’t want to get into too many details of that,” Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Friday. “It’s not as simple as saying this is the number of people that we have that we have recovered.”
The fire chief said he expected to receive an update from the medical examiner’s Friday night.
In addition to bearing the stress of the disaster, townspeople were increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from authorities, said Mary Schoenfeldt, a disaster traumatologist who has been providing counseling services at schools and for public employees and volunteers.
“The anger and frustration is starting to rise,” she said.
That’s normal for this phase of a disaster, as is the physical toll taken by not having eaten or slept normally in days, she said.
There were also signs of resilience. Handmade signs have appeared that say “Oso strong” and “530 pride” in reference to the stricken community and state Highway 530 that runs through it.
Authorities have acknowledged the deaths of at least 25 people — with 17 bodies recovered. Reports of more bodies being found have trickled in from relatives and workers on the scene.
Searchers are working from a list of 90 missing people, which equates to about half of the population of Oso, a North Cascades foothills community some 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
That list has not been made public, but officials have said it includes not just residents who may have been in their homes but others thought to be in the area or traveling the highway when the slide struck.