03/25/2014 09:13 EDT | Updated 05/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Washington State Mudslide: Rescue Operation Turns Into Recovery As Hope Fades

Washington state officials say hope is fading that anyone will be found alive as the search for survivors in the massive mudslide that struck a rural community in Snohomish County Saturday morning enters its fourth day.

U.S. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency Monday, freeing up federal funds for a major rescue effort, according to Washington state officials.

On Monday, six more bodies were discovered bringing the death toll to 14. Not a single survivor has been found.

Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington says there may be none.

"I believe it’s fair at this point to say that most of us in these communities believe we will not find any individuals alive, " he told reporters at a news conference late Monday.

"I’m a man of faith and I believe in miracles and you’ve all reported on incidents worldwide where these things can turn on a dime and somebody can be found. So does that mean we give up? No. But I think we as a county, we as a community are beginning to realize, much like you, are that we are beginning to turn to a recovery operation."

The number of people reported missing also took a jump on Monday from 108 to 176.  But Pennington says the higher number is likely due to officials actively soliciting information, much of which consisted of vague descriptions of individuals that could easily be duplicates.

"The 176 is a number I believe very strongly that you're not going to see in fatalities," said Pennington. "I believe it's going to drop dramatically. Why did it increase today? Because we were successful in pulling in the information. It's as simple as that."

Search suspended for two hours

Pennington says the search for survivors was suspended for more than two hours Monday when rescuers were pulled back following concerns the debris field had become unstable.

"We started getting reports and some photos started coming in showing that it looked like a potential other portion of the slide might be moving, so the prudent, safe thing to do, is to pull back those first responders," he said.

Snohomish County public works director Steve Thompson says a helicopter went up and a team consisting of three geologists and a hydrologist examined the site and found "some sloughing" off the edge of the slide but nothing to worry about.

The 2.6-square-kilometre slide destroyed about 49 structures when a wall of mud and debris swept across 1.5 kilometres of State Route 530 near the community of Oso, about 88 kilometres north of Seattle Saturday morning.

Compressed mud like cement

Snohomish County Fire District Chief Travis Hots says searching the debris field is an enormous task because it is full of "big berms of clay and quicksand."

"Someone out there told me, 'You know chief, sometimes, it takes five minutes to walk 40, 50 feet and get our equipment over these berms,'" he said. "It's very challenging debris to walk across."

"One of the responders out there said, 'You know, when we do find a void space like a house where it's been smashed up, it's very tough to search those buildings because they've been collapsed and compressed with all of that material that's come down.'"

"He said it's like cement that has gone into those void spaces and it's very, very difficult to get in there and actually search."

Rescue officials have confirmed there were 49 parcels of land that had some sort of structure on them," said Pennington. He said 24 of the 49 homes were permanently occupied, and 10 were occupied part of the time or were vacation homes. Officials are still gathering information on the rest.

He said the tragedy is compounded by the fact the slide struck on the weekend when most people would be home and when contractors with scheduled work would be moving into the area.

"People were coming to work in yards, work on their homes. People were driving on 530, so it hit at probably just the wrong time."

Reed Miller waits for son

Local resident Reed Miller was waiting for word of his son who he hasn't heard from since the slide struck. Miller says he left his home, one of the closest to the slide, to get some groceries.

"My home is completely destroyed. I’ve seen aerial photos of the place and everything is completely destroyed, 27 homes. Some of the neighbours are missing. My one neighbour, a woman is missing and her granddaughter is missing. Another kid, who my grandson used to like to play with when he lived out here, he's missing"

Miller says there was a small slide in the area "a few years back." 

"And they came down and put in a wall to hold it in place and it was pretty stable, trees growing out of it and it's pretty stable you know. You didn't have to worry about that anymore."

Authorities believe this slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall.

No survivors found

Search and rescue teams, who have been using helicopters and ground crews, have not found any signs of life despite reports Saturday night of survivors crying out for help.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as "a square mile of total devastation" after flying over the disaster area. He assured families that everything was being done to find their missing loved ones.

The area has a history of unstable land, and was the site of a smaller slide in 2006.

The slide also blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. With water pooling behind the debris, authorities are still worried about downstream flooding and are keeping an eye on the situation.

On Sunday,  the water began to seep through the blockage, but Pennington said Monday that the water behind the debris dam was continuing to back up along the north fork of the Stillaguamish.

Seven homes were reported to be flooded, some of had water up to the eaves.

"The bad news is that the water continues to rise," Pennington said.

"If there is a silver lining in that event, and it is tragic because it is people's homes, it is that it is a slow, methodical rise. You can see that danger."

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Google Map: Oso, Washington mudslide

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