Relaymedia

Washington Landslide Death Toll Reaches 24, Local Baptist Church Asks for Prayers, Hoping for Survivors

( [email protected] ) Mar 26, 2014 02:16 PM EDT

Washington Mudslide
(Photo : AP)

The landslide on Saturday morning near the town of Oso, Washington has potentially claimed twenty four lives, and rescue efforts continue for as many as 176 unaccounted for persons in the area. Over 100 emergency responders are reportedly searching slowly through the mud and debris in inclement weather using canines, electronic listening devices, and cameras to help find people.

The town of Oso was a very scenic area ideal for retirement, with a tightly-knit community. Heavy rainfall is believed to have softened the land on a mountain across the river from Oso, causing the mountainside to give way and bury homes in the small town, Reuters reports. The area 55 miles northeast of Seattle had experienced a previous mudslide in 2006, and though residents were warned of the risk for future potential landslides, Saturday's catastrophe was rather unexpected.

USA Today reports that though the official death toll is 16 people, eight more bodies have been found and may bring the count to 24 once they are uncovered. Because many who were passing through the area on State Route 530 at the time of the mudslide were at risk, the number of people that are unaccounted for is a rough estimate. Fox News reports that once power was restored to the area on Tuesday, more people were able to call in to either report missing persons or verify their safety.

Washington Mudslide
(Photo : AP)

More than 30 houses were reportedly buried by the mudslide, and because homeowners insurance does not typically cover landslides, many lost their homes. Those in the tightly-knit community say they are much more concerned about their missing neighbors than about their lost possessions, however. The National Guard is still searching for people, but weather conditions are making their efforts slow and difficult. "The most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people ... the dogs are the ones that are pinpointing a particular area to look, and we're looking and that's how we're finding people," says Snohomish County Fire Chief Travis Hots.

Michelle Hutchison, who has lived in a nearby town for six years, says she felt lead by the Lord to create a map of all the homes and names of people that she knew of in the area. "We knew lots of people who lived there ... They went to school in Darrington or they shopped in Darrington or they went to church in Darrington," she says. She posted the map to Facebook, and it has proved to be quite a valuable tool to help to aid rescue efforts.

Though numerous people are still missing, John Pennington of the Department of Emergency Management says he continues to have hope - "Most of us in these communities don't believe we will find any individuals alive. But I'm a man of faith and I believe in miracles," he says.

A local baptist church Oso Community Chapel is the only church on a 30-mile stretch of State Route 530, near where the disaster occurred. It is organizing efforts to help support the recovery work and to minister in the devastated community.

Blessedly, none of the church's 80 members were injured and none lost their homes, according to pastor Gary Ray, but in the community of 500 along the Stillaguamish River, all of the members have been touched by the tragedy.

"We are the only church on the only road through here," Ray said. "The church is less than two miles from the impact area."

Ray plans to host a community response meeting at the church Wednesday night to determine next how to proceed in the relief and recovery efforts.

"The roads are blocked, the power is out and communication is a challenge. We want to mobilize the church and the community to support the recovery work," Ray said. "We want to be able to do anything we can to help with an eye to long-term community support and rebuilding. This area is highly unchurched."

Many others are ready to help out, but the conditions in the area are hampering efforts, and officials are not ready to let emrgency response teams from churches in the area yet becasue the ground is still unstable.

"it's going to be a very long time before they allow anything like an ERT in that area," Jim Truitt, the United Methodist Volunteers-in-Mission coordinator told the Pacific Northwest Methodist News Blog.

"I have my ERTs on alert, ready to dispatch when we are able and asked," Truitt said.

[Editor's note: Don Pittman contributed to the report.]