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Andrea Hulme, who has relatives still missing after a huge mudslide roared down from a rain-saturated mountain slope, near Oso, Wash., March 25, 2014. The search for survivors at the site of the landslide continued Tuesday with the growing fear that rescue workers will find more bodies beneath the several stories of mud with the consistency of freshly poured concrete.MICHAEL HANSON/The New York Times

The friends and families of those missing in a massive mudslide here aren't giving up hope, even if they are fearing the worst.

Caught between optimism and despair, many echoed the words of local emergency manager John Pennington: They believe "in miracles." Then, with a wince, many added that although they knew people had been rescued from worse, their hope was starting to fade after three days of searches and no survivors.

"Everyone is hoping for a miracle, but it looks pretty bad," said Olan Flick, who runs an upholstery shop in Oso. "Guys at the fire hall were pretty grim. They said that not much good news would be coming."

The phone has begun to ring at David G. Boulton's flower shop on Olympic Avenue, the main street through neighbouring Arlington. After the names of victims began to surface on Tuesday, people called with orders to deliver flowers to locals who had lost family members.

"The orders are starting to trickle in. I expect the numbers to increase, and then memorial services," Mr. Boulton said with a sigh. "They're devastated. You hear just a tone in the voice of such sorrow."

Search teams continued to comb the thick field of mud, rocks and broken trees for bodies on Tuesday, although they were hampered by rain that gave the mud the consistency of fresh concrete, threatening to entomb everything in a 21/2-square-kilometre zone of destruction.

Officials raised the death toll Tuesday night to 24 confirmed deaths, an increase of 10 from earlier in the day. Of the 24, 16 bodies have been removed and eight more located. There is also a list with the names of 176 people still unaccounted for, although officials said that number could fall drastically as they sort out duplicate names – some people were reported missing by multiple family members or friends.

As a testament to the chaos of the situation, the list includes the names of construction workers, deliverymen and motorists believed to have been driving along a state road that was buried when the wall of mud rushed across the Stillaguamish River on Saturday morning.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee described the scene as "a square mile of total devastation" after flying over the disaster area.

Officials in Snohomish County have warned that search operations could continue for weeks as teams continue to painstakingly comb through the quicksand-like mud for signs of life. The search is still referred to as a rescue, with officials unwilling to switch to "recovery" mode.

"I believe in miracles and I believe people can survive these events," Mr. Pennington told reporters.

The debris field in central Oso, about 90 kilometres northeast of Seattle, is still unstable, forcing searchers to wait for the ground to stop shifting. Because of the dangerous conditions, officials asked volunteers to stay away Tuesday. About 200 first responders are currently at the disaster site, with more teams set to arrive over the next few days.

"I grew up here, and one of the last names on the list rings a bell. I just wanted to see if I could help," said a man who volunteered and was turned away on Tuesday.

On Monday, dozens of volunteers arrived at the Oso fire hall, leaving parked trucks strewn around the area. Some helped investigate homes that had been thrown hundreds of metres by the slide. Using a chainsaw, volunteers entered a shattered home through the attic on Monday after hearing sounds inside. They found an injured Labrador retriever.

"I never expected to be doing this," said volunteer firefighter Jeff McClellan. "These are our friends and neighbours. … This area was once so beautiful."

A family was at the debris field on Tuesday, helping authorities navigate the broken terrain. Officials have identified 49 buildings within the disaster zone, half of which they believe were occupied year-round.

Because the mudslide occurred on a sunny Saturday morning, first responders worry that many of the residents could have been home, enjoying a quiet morning in the tranquil valley nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Range.

Mr. Flick was enjoying the morning at his home on the edge of Oso when he began to hear emergency vehicles rush past. He stopped counting after 30 ambulances had interrupted the calm morning. He soon discovered what had happened.

"I was in shock," he said. "I felt like I had to say something."

He put up a sign along the main road into Oso asking people to pray for the victims of the disaster. He said he hasn't heard from several friends since Saturday.

He said his daughter has at least eight friends who are thought to be dead.

"These are people who she took the bus with since she was a little kid," he said. His daughter would get off the school bus only a few stops before it let out children in the middle of Oso – the same children who are now missing.

There was finger pointing on Tuesday about whether or not the disaster could have been averted. Small mudslides had shaken residents in the area nearly every decade since the 1940s. Some caused damage to berms, silted up the Stillaguamish River and even covered the local road with debris. None of the previous slides is known to have caused fatalities.

A magnitude-1.1 earthquake on March 10 is also being investigated, with questions as to whether or not it could have helped the ground give way on Saturday.

Those questions were far from the minds of residents as they reported to work after the disaster. Quiet and reserved, many locals gather at local churches to grieve and pray in the evenings. Few communal spaces are open during the day. Even the churches are closed – the local pastors have day jobs.

"We still need to work," said Mr. Boulton, cutting flowers for families of the victims.

A warning, 15 years ago

A scientist working for the government warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the fishing village of Oso, Wash.

"I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large magnitude event," though not when it would happen, said Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. "I was not surprised."

In his report, Mr. Miller said the soil on the steep slope lacked any binding agent that would make it more secure and that the underlying layers of silt and sand could give way in a "large catastrophic failure."

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Seattle, said it appears the report was intended not as a risk assessment but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.

Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated village of Oso said they were not aware of the study but that residents and town officials knew the risks of living in the area.

In fact, the area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century. The last severe one before Saturday's disaster was in 2006.

Associated Press