The death toll from the Oso, Washington, mudslide disaster was raised to 28 on Tuesday, as search and rescue teams continue to fight through terrible conditions in search of victims. The number of people listed as missing is still at 22, but crews are continuing the effort to find the bodies more than a week after the slide buried dozens of homes under mud and debris.
The search area has been hit hard by additional flooding and poor weather as the area experienced several days of rain over the weekend. In addition, the mud the workers are slogging through has been contaminated by hazardous materials, as septic tanks, gasoline and propane containers, and other household chemicals were swept up in the slide. Rescuers and their search dogs have to be hosed off thoroughly to remove the hazardous waste.
The grueling search work has taken its toll on the most vital, and furriest, members of the rescue party. Teams of expertly trained dogs have been deployed since the disaster struck March 22nd, and those dogs that have been going through the mud since then are feeling the elements and the exhaustion. Local veterinarians have been volunteering their time to the treat the rescue dogs who come in from the field cold, dehydrated, and suffering from various puncture wounds and injuries. One volunteer says she's been treating dozens of a dogs a day, before sending them back into the mess.
"These are my classmates and they're lost in this pile and their kids are out here, too. My best friend's son is out there and classmates are out there and the only thing I'm good at is veterinary medicine."
Kris Rietmann, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation, said "The conditions on the slide field are difficult, so this is just a time to take care of the dogs," and as a result, the dogs were pulled from the search for two days. If the dogs are overworked, they begin to "lose their sensing ability", especially in the cold and rain. The short break helps preserve their searching skills in the long term.
The slide also caused a dam to form on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. This increased the water level, flooding much of the area which needs to be searched. Tim Pierce, the Washington Task Force 1 search-and-rescue team leader, said, "At this point, there's no point in searching [that area] again until the water drops back down." Conditions are set to improve with several days of dry weather this week.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.