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Originally published April 7, 2014 at 8:47 PM | Page modified April 8, 2014 at 11:45 AM

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Crews start work on berms to ease search for mudslide victims

Work has begun on a berm that will allow draining an area of the Oso mudslide to facilitate the search for victims. FEMA has set up three locations to serve those affected by the slide, and the body of another victim has been identified.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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ARLINGTON — Crews from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have begun work on an 1,800-foot berm that will help allow the draining of an area the size of about 33 football fields, where some of the 12 remaining victims of the Oso mudslide may lie buried.

Mike Peele, flood-team leader for the corps, said at a Monday evening briefing that about a 300-foot section of berm on one side of the targeted area being searched was constructed Monday, but the entire berm could take up to a week to complete.

Peele said the berm — essentially a 12-foot-wide mound of dirt and rocks with a road on top — will prevent water from flowing into the search area and allow crews to begin using pumps to drain it.

Steve Thomsen, Snohomish County’s director of public works, said the berm will be a crucial help because searchers have been contending with hazardous and nearly impossible conditions amid “very, very gloppy mud, some 15 to 20 feet deep.”

Details on the progress of the berm’s construction came on a day in which the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said it had identified 30 of the 33 individuals whose bodies have been recovered.

To help protect the searchers looking for the remaining victims, experts from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have been placing monitoring equipment, including devices called “spiders,” which can be lowered from a helicopter, near and above the area where searchers are at work, to detect any potentially dangerous movement of earth.

Rick LaHusen, USGS technologist, said, so far, the devices have detected “nothing that gives us any concern,” but he said continuous monitoring is a necessary precaution.

Also Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened sites in Arlington, Oso and Darrington to hear from people affected by the slide and to see what kinds of assistance they might qualify for.

President Obama’s declaration last week that the Oso mudslide was a “major disaster” opened the door to federal assistance to individuals.

“We are determined to provide as much personalized attention as possible here to survivors of this heartbreaking tragedy,” said FEMA coordinating officer Michael Hall, appointed by Obama to manage response to the disaster.

“Our goal is, when desired, to meet personally with each individual — whether they lost a loved one, their home or were severely impacted in some other way,” Hall said.

Disaster-assistance teams, including bereavement and program specialists, are seeking to learn the short-term and long-term effects on residents, federal officials said.

Those who would like to apply for assistance are advised to register at or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

On Monday morning, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said it had identified the body of Billy L. Spillers.

Spillers, 30, was a chief petty officer in the Navy stationed at Naval Station Everett. Spillers and his children were apparently watching TV when the mudslide hit. Killed along with him were Kaylee Spillers, 5, and his 13-year-old stepson, Jovon Mangual.

Spillers’ daughter, Brooke, 2, is among the 12 people still missing.

Spillers’ wife, Joielle, wasn’t home when the slide hit and is safe. The couple’s son, Jacob, 4, was pulled from the mud.

Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center has released a 58-year-old man injured in the mudslide.

The man, who was not identified by the trauma center, was discharged Saturday. He was transferred to a rehabilitation facility, hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg wrote in a news release.

Three people injured in the slide remain at Harborview; two are in intensive care.

Jack Broom: or 206-464-2222

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