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Extreme weather worried residents before B.C. landslide

Rescue efforts in Johnsons Landing were hampered for much of Friday by unsafe conditions.

Handout image/The Canadian Press

Days before the massive torrent of mud and debris tore through the southeastern B.C. community of Johnsons Landing – leaving four people unaccounted for – residents were already nervous.

A record-setting month of rain coupled with a rapidly melting snow pack had sent small blasts of water and rock down the mountain slope. The situation had become so nerve-racking that one woman decided to pack up and leave.

It was, perhaps, a lifesaving decision. Within 20 minutes of her departure, her home was one of three caught in the slide.

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"In retrospect, there was definitely forewarning," said Roland Procter, a close friend of the woman and a retired doctor who's lived in the tiny community for 33 years.

A spokesman for the Central Kootenay Regional District said he was not aware of any reports of danger before the slide. The provincial Ministry of Forests, however, said it received an e-mail from a concerned citizen just before the slide. There was nothing the ministry could do.

Rescue efforts were hampered for much of Friday by unsafe conditions, a fact that frustrated relatives of the missing.

Lynn Migdal said her two daughters and ex-husband were unaccounted for. Ms. Migdal said she feared that by the time help reached them, it would be too late.

"I need hundreds of people with shovels as soon as possible if there is any chance that my family is still breathing," she said in an interview.

Ms. Migdal identified her relatives as 17-year-old Rachel Webber, 22-year-old Diana Webber and her ex-husband, Valentine Webber.

She said one of her daughters was on the phone with a friend shortly before the slide.

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"My daughter said that they were going to be sitting down to breakfast and that my ex-husband was cooking breakfast. They got off the phone and there was an avalanche," Ms. Migdal said.

Sarah Jenkins, Mr. Webber's niece, said her uncle is a sailor who worked on shipping vessels until a shoulder injury a couple of years ago. She said Rachel Webber is still in high school, while Diana Webber has been working on a career as a screenwriter.

The fourth person who is unaccounted for is believed to be a German vacationer.

Mr. Procter was on his garden deck, about 500 metres away from the slide, when he heard a prolonged 20 to 30 second rumbling.

Johnsons Landing had more rain in June than Mr. Procter said he had ever before witnessed in a single month. He said residents were sending each other concerned e-mails about the debris flow before the slide. He said he received one just before the slide that warned of "surges of mud, and muddy water, and boulders."

Ms. Procter said one of the homes that was "crushed" belongs to a close friend. He said she also e-mailed him shortly before the slide.

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"She was feeling a little nervous in her house, if there was any kind of slide activity, it would probably run into her house."

Within 20 minutes, he said the slide hit.

"I was worried she was in there. But fortunately, right after that e-mail exchange she got in her car and drove to [the nearby town of] Kaslo," he said.

Gail Spitler, another Johnsons Landing resident, said she was on the phone when she, too, heard the slide's rumble. She said she saw a plume of debris 30 to 50 feet high, moving "at a significant pace."

Ms. Spitler said conditions on the slope were much discussed in the days leading up to the slide. She said the creeks were running chocolate brown and with enormous volume.

Premier Christy Clark issued a statement on Friday in which she sent her thoughts and prayers to those affected by the slide. Justice Minister Shirley Bond wrote in a statement that the province has moved disaster financial assistance for those affected by the slide.

District officials held a news conference Friday evening to update the rescue effort. They said the four missing people are still unaccounted for.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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