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Official: Mudslide search turning corner 'into the recovery operation'

March 25, 2014 at 8:28 AM ET

Video: John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, joins TODAY to discuss the latest news on the mudslide rescue and recovery efforts in Washington.

With 176 people still missing in the wake of a mudslide in Washington on Saturday, a county official believes the chances of finding many more survivors are remote. 

"I never lose faith and a lot of people in this community will never lose faith, but I think that there's a realism element that's entered in,'' Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington told Matt Lauer on TODAY Tuesday. "As we enter into day three, we see the devastation, and I think the realization is that we have responded as well as we can and we will continue to do that, but that we are turning that very delicate corner into the recovery operation. I think that's only fair to the people that are out there and for that process of grieving and healing not just for the individuals and families but for the entire community and our county of Snohomish." 

Rescue teams have had to navigate the search of debris near Oso, Wash. by hand because of quicksand-like conditions. 

Video: More bodies have been pulled from the aftermath of the tragic mudslide in Washington. At least 14 are dead and as many as 176 others reported missing. TODAY surveys the devastation from the ground and air. NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports.

"The delicate nature of responding, it delays that response, but you want to be very respectful going into those who may be deceased as well as those who need rescuing, so there are challenges all around,'' Pennington said. 

Dozens of homes were flattened in an area that is 4,400 feet long and 4,400 feet wide. The mudslide also dammed a river, causing flooding. 

A team of 50 from the National Guard has joined the search along with a host of volunteers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has requested help from 18 California firefighters with training in urban rescue. 

"They're dealing with devastation,'' Pennington said. "I think the pictures pretty much speak for themselves at this point. If I could really quantify what this looks like and what the operation essentially looks like at this point, it's a microcosm of Mt. St. Helens and that debris field. It came down hard and fast. It's deep, it's inconsistent, and it's made the challenge of response and recovery to an extent even more challenging."

Searchers are "dealing with devastation," said the county's emergency management director.
TODAY
Searchers are "dealing with devastation," said the county's emergency management director.

Authorities have also stressed that the reports of 176 people missing could include some inaccuracies or duplicates. 

"The short answer is we do believe that there is quite a bit of duplication in that, but we'd much rather throw that number out and say, 'Here are the individual names, and the individual descriptions that we're dealing with,''' Pennington said. "Probably from a coordination standpoint, from a call center standpoint and getting answers to those loved ones that are looking for answers, that's been our greatest hurdle.

"In some cases you'll have descriptions of, 'His name was John, he had brown hair, blue eyes, he lived at 123 Steelhead Lane,' and then another description of John who is 58 years of age, and we believe that that's the same individual, and may have duplication on that list. The public has been great at reporting and helping us to bring that number down." 

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