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Mudslides And Landslides: Widely Cited Data Is Decades Old

The official death toll in the mudslide that turned a community into a disaster area in Oso, Wash., remains at 17, as officials work to locate and identify victims.

Update at 11:01 p.m. EDT: New Numbers

The number of deaths climbed by one Saturday to 18, while the number missing and unaccounted for decreased dramatically from 90 to 30, officials from the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management told reporters.

That number had been expected to fall, as partial reports and duplicates were sorted out.

Our Original Post Continues

And it now seems that a figure that's often reported about damage done by landslides is nearly 30 years out of date.

That's the word from the Northwest News Network, where Jessica Robinson reports that the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal and state agencies all cite the same statistic when they say landslides kill 25-50 people and cause $1 to $2 billion in damages each year.

The problem, she notes, is that the data comes from a National Research Council paper that's almost three decades old. Created by the Committee on Ground Failure Hazards, its title is "Reducing Losses from Landsliding in the United States."

"Scholars who cite the report often translate the 1985 financial cost into contemporary dollars, $3.5 billion or so," Robinson notes. "But it's not based on any new data about landslides."

The old figures are still being referenced because "there's been no money out there to do current studies," geologist Scott Burns of Portland State University tells Robinson. He adds that no agency currently monitors land- and mudslides on a national level.

The 1985 numbers have been widely referenced. Consider that in The Two-Way's primer on the natural disasters Friday, our post also included the data about casualties, citing the Centers for Disease Control.

In Washington State, dozens of people remain missing after last week's slide. Crews are working to find and identify victims, even as more heavy rains fell Friday.

For NPR's Newscast unit, Rae Ellen Bichell reports from the neighboring town of Darrington:

"Residents gathered in a gym Friday night in what's become a nightly ritual since a deadly mudslide sloughed off an entire neighborhood next door. This time, several Congressmen and two senators joined them. Sen. Patty Murray says that grit alone won't dissolve this community's struggles."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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