More Than A Dozen Missing After Fatal Washington Mudslide

Mar 23, 2014
Originally published on March 23, 2014 6:37 pm
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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Authorities in Washington state are watching a natural dam that is collapsing on the Stillaguamish River in the western part of the state. The dam formed as a result of a massive mudslide yesterday that wiped out an entire neighborhood near the small town of Oso. There are at least four dead, and at least 17 people unaccounted for - that number expected to rise.

NPR's Martin Kaste is there. Martin, it's only now becoming clear just how huge this mudslide was. Give us a sense of the scale.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Yeah. It's the kind of thing you can only really appreciate from the air. And the governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee, flew over the site this morning. And when he talked to us later, he described it as a scene of utter devastation. Basically, the whole hillside - we're here in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains - and the whole hillside just sort of collapsed into a narrow river valley, damming up that river. And the result is this area of about 1 square mile of just debris, broken trees and just terrain that moved and, of course, some of the houses that were swept away. So it's a pretty large area affected.

RATH: Sounds dreadful. What does the rescue operation look like?

KASTE: It's the kind of thing that is just so unusual to deal with. They're trying to get in there. They did rescue some people yesterday after the initial landslide. But it's a very treacherous area. It's been described as sort of a slurry. It's a very - sort of loose rubble and debris and mud field. And it's the kind of thing that it's very treacherous for the rescuers when they go in there. They brought various kinds of equipment like hovercraft, and they've got helicopters. But the rescuers themselves run the risk of getting trapped, injured or killed in there. Some of the actual rescuers had to be pulled out as they were searching for survivors yesterday.

RATH: So with the concern over the people that might still be in there, and the worry about the rescuers themselves, how do they proceed from here?

KASTE: Well, it's a very painful situation. There were reports of voices yesterday coming from a structure that had been hit. They couldn't get in there. It was too risky. They had to back off. Those voices are no longer being heard. In fact, one official here said the last report of voices was yesterday - was last night. So it's very dodgy. It's a very shifting area. And it's, unfortunately, the kind of situation where they can't easily get in and check to see if there's someone that's still alive, or to find the bodies.

There was one concern about a possible flood downstream. If this natural dam created by the landslide were to just - to collapse and send the whole river down in one fell swoop, they were worried about flooding. But that danger now seems to be receding because the natural dam from the landslide is slowly breaching. And so it's relieving that pressure.

RATH: NPR's Martin Kaste in Oso, Wash. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.