(Governor says expects death toll to climb significantly; adds color from search; quote from geologist who studied area's slide risks)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 26 (Reuters) - Search teams picked through mud-caked debris on Wednesday looking for scores of people still missing from a deadly Washington state weekend landslide, while local officials fended off criticism of property development in the area after previous slides.
The known death toll stood at 24, with as many as 176 people still unaccounted for near the rural town of Oso, where a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday and cascaded over a river and a road, engulfing dozens of homes on the opposite bank.
Residents of the stricken community and nearby towns braced for an expected rise in the casualty count as hope faded that anyone else would be plucked alive from the cement-like muck and debris that blanketed an area covering about one square mile (2.6 square km).
"My son's best friend is out there missing," said John Pugh, 47, a National Guardsman who lives in the neighboring village of Darrington. "My daughter's maid of honor's parents are missing. It's raw. And it will be for a long time."
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise significantly, Governor Jay Inslee told CNN: "Yes, I don't think anyone can reach any other conclusion.
"It's been very sad that we have not been able to find anyone living now for probably 36 or 48 hours," he said. "The most discouraging thing is we were hopeful that we would find folks who might be protected by a car or a structure, but the force of this landslide just defies imagination."
About 200 search personnel, many wearing rain gear and hard hats, painstakingly combed through the disaster zone under cloudy skies on Wednesday, taking advantage of a break from Tuesday's rain showers to push ahead in their search for more victims.
At the same time, authorities sought to whittle down their list of unaccounted-for individuals, with missing-persons detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office working to resolve likely redundancies on a roster of people whose fate remained unknown.
County officials also started to address criticism for allowing new home construction on parts of the disaster site after a 2006 landslide in the same vicinity, which itself followed numerous reports detailing the risks of slides dating back to the 1950s.
A 1999 study by geologist Daniel Miller for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned of the potential for a "large catastrophic failure" in the area, about 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Seattle.
"There's definitely a blame-game going on," Miller told Reuters on Wednesday. "I've always thought it's inappropriate to allow development in flood plains, in areas at risk of landslides, in part because of the danger to human life and also in part because when something happens, even if no one is hurt, public agencies end up coming in to make repairs," he said.
The county's emergency management director, John Pennington, told reporters local authorities had spent millions of dollars on work to reduce landslide risks in the area after the 2006 event.
He suggested that while officials and residents were aware of vulnerability to unstable hill slopes, Saturday's tragedy came out of the blue.
"We really did a great job of mitigating the potential for smaller slides to come in and impact the community," Pennington said. "So from 2006 to this point, the community did feel safe; they fully understood the risks."
But he also said: "People knew that this is a landslide-prone area. Sometimes big events just happen. Sometimes large events that nobody sees happen. And this event happened, and I want to find out why. I don't have those answers right now."
Search and rescue operations tapered off overnight but ramped up to full strength again at first light on Wednesday. Searchers used dogs to pinpoint possible locations of victims, as well as electronic equipment such as listening devices and cameras capable of probing voids in the debris.
"We're not backing off. We're still going at this with all eight cylinders to get everyone out there who is unaccounted for," local fire chief Travis Hots said.
The tally of known dead rose on Tuesday night from 14 to 24 when county officials reported that search crews laboring in a steady drizzle had recovered two more bodies from the disaster zone and located the remains of eight additional victims.
The rising death toll added to a deepening sense of gloom in the cluster of riverfront towns near the site of the mudslide.
"Just about everybody you see here going about their day knows people up there," said Martin McCaulley, 22, a lumber mill security guard in Darrington, as he stood in that town's supermarket. "This is a community that you can't drive down the street without waving 20 times."
Officials said they were still hopeful that many of those listed as missing would turn out to have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts.
Pennington said he expected to have updated figures later in the day on the number of missing individuals, and presumably the death toll.
Eight people were injured but survived the slide, including a 22-week-old infant rescued with his mother and listed in critical condition, though hospital officials said the baby was improving. The mother and three other survivors also remained hospitalized.
The slide already ranks as one of the worst in the United States. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and floods in Nelson County, Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle and Bryan Cohen in Arlington, Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cythia Johnston and Dan Grebler)