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Washington Landslide Takes A Grim — And Fluctuating — Toll


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been nine days since the devastating mudslide in the tiny community of Oso, Washington, and it's now apparent that the death toll will not be nearly so high as it once been feared. The loss is still terrible. State officials that 21 people are confirmed dead, dozens are listed as missing. But last week, more than 170 people were reported unaccounted for.

NPR's Martin Kaste tells us why those numbers have fluctuated so much.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: A degree of human order has been re-imposed in Oso. The search is more methodical now, following a grid, and there's a new road reconnecting the two ends of the valley. It's rough and it's just for official vehicles, but it's made the recovery effort a lot easier. People are also getting a better grasp of the true scale of the disaster.

Late last week, the unofficial death toll had been as high as 26. That number was the result of adding the official toll of ID'd victims to the first responders' reports of unidentified remains. But on Friday evening, Snohomish County official Gary Haakenson cautioned against that.

GARY HAAKENSON: The identification process has been very, very challenging.

KASTE: The force of the landslide was so great, so violent that one victim's remains may be found in different places and may be double-counted. Given that grim reality, the county has become a lot more disciplined about how it reports new finds.

HAAKENSON: So from here on out, every day at 4:30, the medical examiner's office will give the victim count. That will be the only announcement.

KASTE: While the death toll is likely to go up again, it's now obvious that it'll never get anywhere near 176. That's how big the missing persons list got for a time last week. Part of the reason, it seems, is that the list resulted from spontaneous efforts on the Internet. This is the county's emergency management director, John Pennington, last Monday.

JOHN PENNINGTON: We were made aware over the past several days, that there were several lists, and several entities that were pulling together lists regarding unaccounted for or missing individuals.

KASTE: The county tried to consolidate those lists cross-referencing names. Even so, the numbers jumped around wildly. When Pennington spoke a week ago, the number stood at 108. But even then, he said some of those names were vague.

PENNINGTON: We have Frank. Frank, I had a beer with him a few weeks ago. He said he lived down in the Steelhead neighborhood. I don't know anything else. That counts into that 108.

KASTE: Once detectives had had some time to make some calls and follow up leads, the missing persons list finally dropped all the way down to 30. Tom Miner is a FEMA official with long experience in big disasters. He says what's happened in Oso is pretty typical.

TOM MINER: Will you ever get an accurate number? Took us weeks to get an accurate number in Oklahoma City. I'm not sure we ever got an accurate number out of the World Trade Center. And we did not recover a hundred percent at the World Trade Center. Those are things that are reality.

KASTE: But in a little place like Oso, there is a decent chance of getting to a definitive final number of victims. And it's something of a comfort to the community that their earliest, worst fears were not realized.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.