Eleven days after a square mile in Washington State was buried by mud, the death toll stood at 29 Wednesday with about 20 people missing, officials said.
The number of confirmed deaths has been rising slowly because of the difficulty of finding human remains and identifying those that are recovered. The mudslide buried a square mile on the outskirts of Oso under as much as 70 feet of mud March 22, blocking the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
But the number of people unaccounted for has dropped sharply since the days immediately after the disaster. The confirmed death toll was 28 on Tuesday.
Lt. Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department said everything that rescuers find has to be decontaminated because the mud is laced with toxic chemicals. Some of the 600 people working in the area have contracted dysentery.
The death toll is the third highest from a natural disaster in Washington history after the 90 people who died in a 1910 avalanche that hit two trains in Stevens Pass and the 57 people killed in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. But Gov. Jay Inslee in a "major disaster" application Monday to the federal government said it has been far more destructive than the earlier disasters in loss of homes.
Coastal Community Bank in Everett, Wash., which has branches in Darrington and Arlington, two towns near the slide, said it will write off the mortgage debt of all those who lost homes and did not have insurance. Other banks have not made any public statement yet.
Lyn Peters of the state Department of Financial Institutions said legally homeowners must still repay mortgages, even if the buildings are destroyed and the property buried.
“The most important thing people can do is call their bank and ask, ‘What do we do?’ ” Eric Sprink, the CEO of Coastal Community, told the Seattle Times. “They need to start asking the hard questions of their banks and insurance companies to get some answers so they can make some tough decisions.”