(Updates with additional body found)
By Eric M. Johnson
ARLINGTON, Wash., March 28 (Reuters) - The death toll from a mudslide that has left 90 people missing in Washington state appeared poised to climb much higher nearly a week after the disaster, as anguished relatives turned to the Internet and word of mouth for scarce scraps of new information.
Authorities on Friday said that another body had been found in the debris field left behind when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a towering wall of mud that flattened dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, about 55 miles (89 km) northeast of Seattle.
The new discovery brings the presumed death count to 27 based on the number of bodies officials have reported finding, even as the official toll of victims who have been found, recovered and formally identified remained steady at 17.
"The operations folks made me aware this afternoon that they did locate one more victim in the debris field, but we are not including that in our total until they actually reach the medical examiner's office," Gary Haakenson, Snohomish County's executive director, told an evening news conference.
While fire officials directing search operations at the disaster site have spoken of making slow but steady progress in recovering remains of victims buried in the slide, the tally of the dead has changed little in recent days.
The lag appears related to a methodical protocol being followed by Snohomish County. County authorities say coroners have so far identified the remains of just 17 people, including an infant whose body was retrieved on Thursday.
Remains of 10 more people have been reported to have been located in the square-mile (2.6 square-km) heap of mud-caked debris and muck over the past several days, but as of Friday had been excluded from the formal tally of lives lost.
County officials have insisted on revising that list only as each set of remains goes through the painstaking process of being examined and identified by coroners, leaving the public mostly in the dark about the retrieval of more bodies.
The process has likely also been slowed by the condition of some of the remains, which according to rescue workers are not always being found intact.
CHURCHES AND FIRE STATIONS
News of additional remains being located and recovered has been trickling out to family members of the missing and dead through word-of-mouth and other channels, however, thanks to community members working side-by-side with rescue teams in the search for more victims.
Area churches and fire stations are also go-to venues for members of the community seeking updates, said Gail Moffett of Oso, who lives 2 miles from the disaster site and works at a hardware store in nearby Arlington.
"I go home and talk to the source, because it's family," she said of the community network, including locally based rescue workers, she has tapped into for information.
"They are all out there on the mudslide every day, going back and going back and going back, day after day after day, to make a difference and to help our people. And they just keep doing it and they come in at night and their butts dragging, covered in mud, and their faces are not the faces I knew last week," she said.
Authorities have in some cases allowed victims' relatives onto the disaster site as the remains of loved ones are recovered, and a moment of silence is observed, as occurred when the body of the infant was extricated on Thursday.
In one case, a volunteer member of the search team, Dayn Brunner, pulled the body of his own sister, 36-year-old Summer Raffo, from the mud pile on Wednesday. She was driving through the area when the slide buried her in her car.
Brunner, 42, took a day off to grieve and rest, then returned to the debris field on Friday to resume the search.
An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide. Nearly a week after the disaster, fears have grown that the final death toll could approach the 90 people still listed as missing or unaccounted for - a figure authorities arrived at on Wednesday after winnowing a much larger list by about half.
Authorities have said some of those killed might never be found, and on Thursday braced the public for news - still yet to come - that the number of dead would increase substantially in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Officials have so far publicly identified five dead, while withholding the names of others listed as dead or missing. But about 40 people have been identified on a local blog site as potential victims, including several members of one family.
All of those discovered alive in the mud were rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have found no further signs of life, officials said.
Volunteer Bob Michajla, 66, said the search was entering a more difficult phase.
"They found the easy bodies in the first few days. The rest of them are probably buried. That's what I was told," said Michajla, his face and fingers caked in mud.
Local fire district chief Travis Hots said rain and wind sweeping the area on Friday was working against the round-the-clock search efforts. A flash flood alert was posted for the county, extending through the next three days.
With hopes for finding any additional survivors continuing to fade while uncertainty over the fate of dozens more lingers on, the mood among the community has grown grimmer.
Bernie Tamez, 39, said he was comfortable that officials were dealing with the community forthrightly, despite the dearth of tangible information.
"They're keeping us informed," said Tamez, a machinist who took the week off to volunteer in Darrington where he lives.
Turned away from helping at the pile, he has instead helped out in the community kitchen that has been feeding a few hundred people each night before the town hall meeting. Meanwhile, residents like 45-year-old Larry Dwyer who escaped the slide marveled at their luck.
"We were driving on that exact stretch two weeks ago. We were right there," Dwyer said as he watched his three sons wave signs ushering motorists toward a food drive at an Arlington market on a rainy Thursday evening. "That's why we're out here right now. It's a karma thing. When it's not you, you give." (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Washington, and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tom Brown, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)
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