TODAY   |  March 25, 2014

Official: Mudslide search turning into ‘recovery’

John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management joins TODAY to discuss the latest news on the challenging mudslide search in Washington.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> is director of the department of emergency management . mr. pennington , good morning to you.

>> good morning.

>> let me first offer our condolences to people in the area who have lost loved ones in the tragedy. talk to me about what the search and rescue are dealing with on a daily basis.

>> sure. and that's -- first and foremost, we appreciate the condolences. they're dealing with devastation. 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 is at this point. mt. st. helens and that debris field. it came down hard and fast, deep, inconsistent, and it's made the challenge of response and recovery to an extent even more challenging.

>> and not only is it difficult work, normally in a situation, you'd want heavy equipment to go in there and clear the way. but because you're concerned, i know, about possibly injuring anyone who may have survived in one of these structures, much of this work is being done by hand.

>> that's right. and the delicate nature of responding, it delays that response. but you want to be very respectful going in to those who may be deceased as well as those that need rescuing. there are challenges all the way around. but the first responder community here up and down the valley, everyone who has pitched in, including the volunteers who by all accounts should be involved, they're going to be involved. we need to incorporate them into that process. they've done everything they can do to really make this process as smooth as it possibly could given the circumstances.

>> i want to talk about this number of people missing or unaccounted for. it's a huge number, it's 176 people at this moment. do you expect that number to change dramatically? is that, perhaps, such a large number because of duplication of reporting? might some of those people not have gotten in touch with loved ones ?

>> that's a great question. and in the short answer, we do believe there's quite a bit of duplication in that. but we would much rather throw that number out and say here are the individual names and descriptions we're dealing with. and probably from a coordination standpoint, call standard standpoint and getting answers to those loved ones looking for answers, that's been our greatest hurdle. in some cases, you'll have descriptions. his name was john. he had brown hair , blue eyes , he lived at 123 stillhead lane. and then another description of john who is 58 years of age. and we believe that's the same individual and may have duplication up and down that list. so the public's been great at reporting and helping us to bring that number down.

>> and real quickly. i know at a news conference you said you're a man of faith. and you believe in miracles. but based on what you're seeing on the ground, mr. pennington , are you starting to lose hope you're going to be finding more survivors?

>> well, i never lose faith. and a lot of people in this community will never lose faith. but i think there's a realism element that's entered in. and as we enter 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 we are turning that very delicate corner into the recovery operation. and 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 the entire community and county in snohomish.

>> mr. pennington , again, our thoughts with the people in your community. thanks for your time this morning.

>> thank you very much.