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28 killed in Oso mudslide; search taking toll on first responders

Workers search for articles and belongings at the scene of the deadly March 22 mudslide, Monday, March 31, 2014, in Oso, Wash. (AP Photo/The Herald, Sofia Jaramillo, Pool)
  • The medical examiner’s office has released its list of 19 victims.
  • Official death toll rises to 28.
  • Number of missing drops to 20; Snohomish County releases list of missing.
  • Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert says they’re working on plans for Highway 530.

The death toll has risen to 28 in the Oso mudslide, and medical examiners have now identified 22 victims after releasing new numbers Tuesday afternoon. Twenty more people are likely still missing in the debris.

Steve Harris, division supervisor on the east side of the slide, said Tuesday they’re making even more discoveries during the drier weather.

The long, difficult search for victims in the most extreme of conditions is starting to take its toll on the volunteers on the field.

But they have help, if they want it.

First responders not only dug through the dirt for victims, they also hugged those who lost loved ones and provided comfort to survivors.

But who provides comfort to those who have spent the last week and a half up to their waists in mud?

The Red Cross has disaster mental health volunteers all over the slide area to help those searchers cope with what they’ve seen and what they’re experiencing.

“We do what’s called, observational triage, we are taking a look and seeing who it is that looks like they might need to talk to someone,” explains mental health volunteer Les Orser. “We bring a bottle of water over, maybe a snack, say hello, sit down and see if they’re ready to talk to us.”

Some are. Some aren’t.

Orser says the last thing you want to do is force someone to open up.

“Don’t push them to talk, give them some space, they’ll talk when they’re ready to talk to you,” he says. “Just let them know that you’re available, that you’re there. Don’t try to fix them. Don’t try to make them talk. Just be available and listen.”

Orser says it’s also important to let them know that what they might be thinking or feeling is normal.

“Simply listen to their story and let them tell their story. People need to tell their story. Once they get to know us a little bit, we might talk a little bit to them about what normal feelings they should be experiencing,” Orser says.

That trouble sleeping or eating is normal after experiencing what they’ve been experiencing.

Orser says some searchers don’t think they need to talk to help them deal with what they’ve seen or to deal with what they’re feeling, but he says no one is immune to the stresses of this work.

“We’re all vulnerable. It’s going to touch us all. There is a lot of sadness and pain and feeling overwhelmed. Those are all normal things and they happen to you too,” he says.

Search crews are now rotating in and out of the debris field to give them some time away to decompress.

In addition to the emotional toll the search is having on rescuers, the danger of more difficult conditions, like wading through household chemicals and sewage, continues.

When rescuers and dogs leave the site, they are hosed off by hazardous materials crews, because they’ve likely had to contend with septic tanks, gasoline and propane containers.

But improving weather should give searchers some relief soon. Conditions improved Sunday, and mainly dry weather is forecast Monday through Wednesday in western Washington.

Preliminary costs

The mudslide and subsequent flooding have caused at least $32.1 million in damage to public infrastructure, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a letter Tuesday to President Barack Obama asking for additional federal assistance.

The preliminary assessments were made by state and federal authorities. Inslee is seeking the additional money to help local and tribal governments cover costs associated with clearing debris and repairing roads and waterways damaged by the disaster.

“The landslide and upstream flooding it caused brought down death and destruction on these tight-knit communities in Snohomish County,” Inslee said in a statement. “These are our friends and neighbors and we’re racing to help repair their roads and other public facilities in the Stillaguamish Valley. If the president acts on this request, we can help do the job even faster.”

Improved equipment

Harris says there are a lot of deep pools and areas where crews can’t get into very easily, but they have a long arm excavator that can reach out and move debris.

“We’ve actually ordered up an excavator that’s mounted on pontoons – it can go on water and float,” says Harris.

He says the USGS is out there with a boat that has side-scanning sonar.

Highway 530

Plans are in the works to re-establish a roadway between Arlington and Darrington. Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert tells KIRO Radio she expects to know something by the end of the week.

“Darrington is now a community that is completely cut off because of the slide. This is a town that is heavily dependent on that spring and summer travel – that tourism that comes through,” says Tolbert.

She says they’re trying to figure out a way to make sure there are not long-term economic impacts to Darrington.

Harris says from what he can see out in the field, crews are making good progress, but there’s a lot of work to be done before 530 reopens.

“There are areas where the highway is completely gone,” says Harris.

Federal assistance

The governor is also hoping to help victims impacted by the slide. Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee asked President Barack Obama for a major disaster declaration in Snohomish County to make programs available to help individuals, households and businesses impacted by the massive slide.

The request made Monday asked for access to disaster housing, disaster grants, disaster-related unemployment insurance and crisis counseling programs for those in Snohomish County and to the Stillaguamish, Sauk-Suiattle and Tulalip Indian tribes.

The staff contributed to this report.

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