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A line of rescue workers arrives to look for victims in the mudslide near Oso, Washington as efforts continued to locate victims March 26, 2014. The death toll from a massive landslide in Washington state stood at 24 on Wednesday, but the mud-stricken community braced for a higher body count as search teams combed through debris looking for scores of people still missing four days after the disaster.RICK WILKING/Reuters

As they grieve for the victims of the mudslide that destroyed much of Oso, Wash., residents of Darrington must deal with the new reality that they are cut off from two neighbouring towns.

Oso is midway between Arlington and Darrington, joined by state route 530. Police cruisers now block the road at milepost 38. Less than a kilometre beyond, search crews pick through the debris of Saturday's catastrophic mudslide for bodies.

"I've lived here my entire life, and I don't know how we'll survive this. If the road stays closed for several months, people will face a tough choice: Leave Darrington or lose your job," Jason Henry said as he walked his dog on Wednesday.

With a population of only 1,400, the timber town is nestled at the base of Whitehorse Mountain, a 2,000-metre peak at the western edge of the Cascade Range. Nearly half the town works in the forestry sector, the rest commute to work through Oso and Arlington.

The scenic half-hour drive to Arlington – population 18,300 – has been replaced by a two-hour detour into the rough Washington wilderness. Tree branches heavy with green moss bow over the underused roads, narrowing to single-lane bridges over creeks.

Commuters will have to use those roads, as will students and those looking to shop for everything but the basics. Local emergency manager John Pennington called the circuitous 140-kilometre link a "critical lifeline" on Wednesday morning.

Several motorists on route 530 are believed to have died in the mudslide.

"Everybody has driven on that road," Mr. Henry said. "It could have been anybody in this town who was driving by on Saturday morning. It's very stressful for everybody."

"This detour is huge; we're cut off," said Angie Espeland, who lives just outside the police line near Oso. "A lot of us live here and work in Seattle and Everett, what are we supposed to do?"

As Ms. Espeland brought coffee and pastries to state troopers on the roadblock, an altercation erupted between sheriff's deputies and some people trying to enter Oso via Darrington. Among them were two locals who had fled the mudslide.

"We just want to go in and get some clothes and stuff. They want to get their lives together, they only had time to rescue some horses before the rising water made them flee," one man explained.

Officials have asked volunteers and locals to stay away, explaining that the ground is still dangerous. Many have disregarded the warnings, some hiking over the mountains to search their homes.

"People are looking for hope," said acting-pastor Jessica Ronharr, who held evening service on Tuesday at Arlington United Church. "We just feel useless."

About 200 emergency responders were at the disaster site on Wednesday, searching the debris with heavy equipment and at least three dogs.

"There are finds going on continually. They are finding people now," said Steve Mason, a fire battalion chief leading operations.

Visibility in the area is limited because the wreckage is covered in grey muck. Machines scoop partial loads and sometimes spread them on the ground, where several people look for clues or victims.

"People are under logs, mixed in. It's a slow process," Mr. Mason said. As he spoke, a chainsaw toppled a tree, clearing more space. Several people huddled around the woody grove, intently focused on a potential recovery.

As of Wednesday evening, authorities had confirmed 24 deaths; 90 people are missing and the status of 35 people is unknown.

From a hillside south of the river, searchers could be seen walking on planks across mud mounds to reach wrecked houses. Searches could continue for weeks, after which authorities will consider reopening the road beyond milepost 38.

With a report from Mike Lindblom of The Seattle Times