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Scientist warned of 'catastrophic' Wash. landslide in 1999

WashingtonmudslideWed640.jpg

March 25, 2014: Washington State Patrol chaplains Joel Smith, left, and Mike Neil, right, watch as workers using heavy equipment work to clear debris from Washington Highway 530 on the western edge of the massive mudslide that struck near Arlington, Wash. Saturday, killing at least 16 people and leaving dozens missing. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, Pool)

A scientist working for the government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the fishing village where the weekend collapse of a rain-soaked hillside killed at least 16 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,” said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. “I was not surprised.”

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps 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.”

Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated village of Oso said that they were not aware of the study but that residents and town officials knew the risks of living in the area.

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

Searchers continued to pick through the debris Tuesday. Authorities were working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates.

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.”

One of the report’s authors, Jonathan Godt, said landslides don’t get that much attention because they often happen in places where they don’t hit anything.

But with Americans building homes deeper into the wilderness, he said, “There are more people in the way.”

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