Scientist warned of mudslide danger 15 years ago

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) — A scientist working for the government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the village where the collapse of a rain-soaked hillside over the weekend killed at least 14 people and left scores missing.

As rescue workers slogged through the muck and rain in search of victims Tuesday, word of the 1999 report raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether officials had taken proper precautions.

“I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event,” though not when it would happen, said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”

Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated fishing village of Oso said that they were not aware of the study.

But John Pennington, director of the county Emergency Department, said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners “were very aware of the slide potential.”

In fact, the area has long been known as the “Hazel Landslide” because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday’s disaster was in 2006.

“We’ve done everything we could to protect them,” Pennington said.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said it appears that the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.

Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said: “We don’t have jurisdiction to do anything. We don’t do zoning. That’s a local responsibility.”

No landslide warnings for the area were issued before the disaster, which came after weeks of heavy rain. The rushing wall of quicksand-like mud, trees and other debris flattened about two dozen homes and critically injured several people.

“One of the things this tragedy should teach us is the need to get better information about geologic hazards out to the general public,” said David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor with the University of Washington in Seattle. “Where are the potentially unstable slopes? How big a risk do they pose? And what should be done to let homeowners know about that?”

Meanwhile, searchers continued to pick through the debris, warning they were likely to find more bodies. Authorities were working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.

The threat of flash floods or another landslide loomed over the rescuers.

Near the southern perimeter of the slide, volunteers from a logging crew gathered to help move debris with chainsaws, excavators and other heavy equipment.

Gene Karger said he could see six orange flags in the debris field, marking bodies they would be pulling out. Karger, a logger most of his life, said it was the first time he was involved in this kind of rescue work.

“You see parts of their bodies sticking out of the mud. It’s real hard. It’s that bad,” Karger said. “There are people out there we know.”

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