ARLINGTON, United States - The number of people missing after a devastating US landslide has fallen to 90, officials said Wednesday while defending themselves over the disaster which has claimed as many as 24 lives so far.
The confirmed death toll remained at 16 with 8 more bodies believed located, as an army of rescuers struggled in grim conditions amid the vast blanket of mud, timber and debris left by last weekend's mudslide.
But Washington state governor Jay Inslee warned that he expected the death toll to rise significantly, as workers dig into the mile square (2.5 sq km) block of hillside which crashed down on the town of Oso.
'Landslide just defies imagination'
"I don't think anyone can reach any other conclusion," he told CNN, when asked about the prospect of many more bodies being found.
"The force of this landslide just defies imagination ... It was 100 per cent devastation within the contours of the slide," he added.
At an evening briefing, Snohomish County emergency management chief John Pennington said 140 people previously unaccounted for have been found, while the status of another 35 was unknown.
The updated figures - down from 176 listed unaccounted for since Monday - came as managers defended their record, noting that experts had warned of the landslide risk four years ago.
'People knew the risks'
They pointed to a 2010 report commissioned after a major landslide in 2006 pinpointed the hillside overlooking Oso as among the most dangerous in terms of possible collapse.
Townspeople "knew the risk, but they felt safe in the small events," Pennington told reporters.
"This wasn't a small event. It was large, it was very catastrophic," he added, at one point fighting back tears.
A total of 49 dwellings in the rural town were hit by the one square mile (2.5 square kilometer) wall of mud, rocks and trees, which also destroyed part of a highway some 60 miles (95 kilometers) northeast of Seattle.
Officials say the massive emergency operation is still aimed at rescuing survivors, as well as recovering bodies, even though the chances of finding people alive diminish with each day.
The National Guard joined local and state emergency workers after President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the state.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will help "save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Snohomish County," the White House said.