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Emergency Chief: Sometimes Massive Mudslides 'Just Happen'

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said sometimes big mudslides "just happen."
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A county official said Wednesday that people living in the path of Saturday's massive mudslide "knew the risk" and that sometimes catastrophes "just happen."

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington — who broke down in tears at one point during a media briefing — said that millions of dollars were spent after a smaller 2006 landslide to prevent a repeat on the north fork of the Stillaguamish River.

But he said a 2010 report commissioned by the county — which identified the site of the weekend's collapse as a high-risk for landslides — made it clear that a danger still existed.

"People knew that this is a landslide-prone area," Pennington said.

But the mitigation work the county did, coupled with the absence of mudslides through numerous floods, gave them a sense of security, he said.

"They knew the risk but they felt safe from those smaller events," he said.

"This wasn’t a small event. It was large. It was very catastrophic," he added. "Sometimes landslides that are this catastrophic just happen."

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He again floated his theory that a tiny 1.1-magnitude earthquake on March 10 — too minor to be felt by anyone — caused a 600-foot-high wall of hillside to peel off onto the small town of Oso nearly two weeks later.

Asked whether he thinks there is anything the county could have done to better prepare for the disaster, Pennington said, "I'm not sure that we could have."

"It haunts me," he said. "Because we did everything we could have done in the community to feel safe."

Sixteen people are confirmed dead in the mudslide and officials believe they have located but not recovered another eight bodies.

"They knew the risk but they felt safe."

There are 176 names on a list of the possibly missing, but many of those are unfounded or duplicates. Officials expect to have a firmer — and much lower — number later Wednesday.

Pennington choked up as he spoke about the assistance the town of Oso and the surrounding cities of Arlington and Darrington had received.

"We are humbled beyond belief in the county," he said.

The National Guard and search-and-rescue teams from other counties have joined the volunteers who are trying to pitch in any way they can.

"My husband wouldn't let me go up and search so I said 'Fine, I'll cook,'" Ingrid Roraback said outside the Food Pavilion grocery in Arlington as she helped pack a van with food for victims and searchers.

Rorabacker, who lives in Snohomish, said she felt close to the people affected by the slide.

"I had a dog named Oso for 17 years," she said.