(Recasting with details about debate over initial disaster response)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 27 (Reuters) - Rescuers searching for 90 people still missing five days after a massive mudslide in Washington state braced the public on Thursday for an impending steep rise in the death toll even as they deflected grumbling about the adequacy of the early disaster response.
At least 25 people are known to have died when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning on Saturday, unleashing a wall of mud that engulfed dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, 55 miles (89 km) northeast of Seattle.
Only the first 16 victims recovered and examined by coroners have been formally counted among the dead, though local fire district chief Travis Hots said that figure would soon climb sharply higher. Nine more bodies that have since been found have yet to be added to the official toll.
"In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner's office catches up with the difficult work that they have to do, you're going to see these numbers increase substantially," he said.
Snohomish County officials said on Wednesday about 90 people remained missing, down from 176, and Hots said on Thursday the revised figure was holding. An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.
Authorities have acknowledged there is little chance of finding any more survivors in the square-mile heap of mud-caked debris and muck left by the landslide, and that the remains of some victims may never be recovered.
Everyone who was discovered alive in the mud pile was rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have not found further signs of life, officials said.
Still, Hots said a round-the-clock search effort by more than 200 people, who were painstakingly combing through a disaster site that included "clay balls the size of ambulances," would press on indefinitely. Rain expected to last through the day would slow search efforts.
"We're not changing the pace of this. And we're going to exhaust all options to try to find somebody alive," he said. "If we find just one more person that's alive, to me, that's worth it."
Tom Minor, commander of a search-and-rescue team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, struck a similar chord when asked about the chances of finding a survivor, saying, "I would say there's always some hope."
GRIEF AND RECRIMINATIONS
As the scope of the tragedy sank in, many area residents have voiced anger that local officials refused to allow volunteers to join the search for victims immediately after the slide, when chances for finding survivors were greatest.
While some used their intimate knowledge of the area to sneak into the disaster zone to help, others returned home feeling frustrated and helpless.
"I went the first day but we got roadblocked," said Calvin Burlingame, a retired lumber mill worker whose nephew is missing. "I'm upset that they did that because they weren't in full control yet and ... the community could have done a lot on our own."
Burlingame, 62, said he understood the risks involved but said it would have been worthwhile: "If we give up something to get something for somebody else, then that's OK."
State police spokesman Bob Calkins said conditions were simply too dangerous to allow non-professional volunteers into the disaster zone immediately after the slide.
"We wish they could have helped, too," Calkins said. "It would not have been safe, and we'd have had more victims."
Authorities finally agreed on Tuesday to start allowing volunteers to join the official rescue teams.
Members of the public were not the only ones with recriminations about how the early response was handled.
Two local politicians, state Representative Elizabeth Scott and Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein, told the Seattle Times that county authorities had wasted time by failing to quickly recognize the scope of the disaster and opting to handle it on their own, without seeking more experienced outside help.
The state National Guard's commanding officer offered to deploy a 50-member search team on Saturday, an offer local emergency management officials did not accept until Monday, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department said.
Spokeswoman Karina Shagren said while county officials did not initially grasp the magnitude of the devastation, there was no room for more personnel at the site because of the dangers of quicksand-like conditions and fears of further slides.
"There wasn't a resources issue, there was a safety issue," she told Reuters.
FEMA's Minor also defended the handling of the situation, saying the first day of any disaster is always marked by a level of confusion and disarray. He called Snohomish County's response "outstanding."
"They knew what they wanted. They asked for it. And when we got here, they knew what our mission was and they gave us our mission. And that doesn't always happen," Minor said. "To say that we could've, should've or might have been here earlier - no, it's about what it takes."
He said the hours required to mobilize a distant FEMA and National Guard team means that "we aren't going to be here on day one." The FEMA crew was activated on Monday, he said.
With spirits dimming as they days wore on, emotions were running raw among loved ones of the dead and missing, and the crews of people searching for them.
Jessica Neal, 30, said she found comfort from Wednesday's recovery of the body of her father-in-law, Steve Neal, a hot water heater installer who was working at a house hit by the slide, and in learning that he apparently did not suffer long.
"The coroner had details that it was fast," she said as she fought back tears.
Shayne Barco, 37, a search team member from Bellingham who arrived at the site on Monday with his trained search dog, a German shepherd named Stratus, said he has labored to keep his emotions pushed to the side while he works.
"It really doesn't hit you until the day's over," he said. "We're out there digging through people's lives, doing the best we can to bring closure to some of the families. It's just take it day by day, chunk by chunk of debris."
Community members assembled late Wednesday to offer prayers for the missing.
"We know, and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of our people are not going to make it," Megan Fanning, 41, said at the gathering in nearby Darrington. "But please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would be wonderful." (Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Jonathan Oatis and Bernadette Baum)