US landslide death toll rises to at least 14

ARLINGTON, United States - The death toll from a devastating landslide in the US state of Washington rose to at least 14 Monday with over 150 more potentially missing, as the White House announced federal help.

The number of people unaccounted for after the killer mudslide, described as "like a small earthquake," rose to 176, although many of those could be double-counted, emergency managers said.

"I'm very disappointed to tell you that we didn't find any sign of any survivors," said Snohomish County fire chief Travis Hots, after six more bodies had been found, adding to the eight already confirmed dead.

"The situation is very grim," he added.

'I believe in miracles'

Emergency management chief John Pennington added: "I'm a man of faith and I believe in miracles .. but I think that we as a community are beginning to realise that ... we are moving towards a recovery operation."

"Most of us ... believe that we will not find any individuals alive," he added at an evening briefing.

The wall of mud, rocks and trees smashed into the rural town of Oso, northeast of Seattle in the northwestern US state on Saturday, destroying dozens of homes and part of a highway.

Some 100 emergency crew workers were searching for survivors in the field of mud and rubble about one mile (1.6 km) square and some four to six meters (13-20 feet) deep in areas.

Mini hovercraft

A total of 49 dwellings of various types in the area were hit by the devastating landslide, he said, adding that there were likely to have been more people at home on a Saturday than during the week.

Mini hovercraft were used to skate across the vast mudslide's surface, while tracker dogs and helicopters were also being used.

Rescuers reported hearing voices calling for help on Saturday, but Hots said they "didn't see or hear any signs of life" on Sunday.

Among the missing was a four-month-old baby and her grandmother, local media reported.

Oso resident Doug Dix, whose house was a couple of hundred yards from the slide, said he was working in his barn when he heard a huge rumbling noise.

'Like a small earthquake'

"My first impression was I thought we were having a small earthquake. The barn was vibrating," the semi-retired wildlife toxicologist told AFP.

"Then I went outside and it sounded to me like one of those twin-prop helicopters coming down ... It was unbelievably noisy." The noise went on for about a minute. "I was looking up in the air trying to find a plane crash," he said.

Shari Ireton of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office said the number of people reported unaccounted for could include double counting, as it was the result of combining a number of lists of people missing, not always with full names.

"Some of those could be overlapped," she said.

Pennington added at the evening briefing: "The 176 names actually, as discouraging as that sounds, is exactly what we were looking for .. which was information and data."

"That number is about individual names reported. They're not individuals that are deceased, .. they're not individuals that are missing, they are 176 reports," he said.

Obama pledges federal help

President Barack Obama meanwhile declared an emergency in the Pacific coast state, opening the way for federal aid to add to local and state emergency resources.

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," said the White House.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee told reporters there is "a full-scale, 100-per cent, aggressive rescue effort" going on.

Workers 'up to their armpits'

The stricken area was so unstable that some rescue workers "went in and got caught literally up to their armpits" and had to be pulled out themselves, Inslee said.

Rain has been especially heavy in the Cascade Mountains region in the past weeks. The forecast is for more downpours throughout the week.

US Senator Patty Murray, from Washington state, called the mudslide a "devastating ... disaster."

"Dozens and dozens of families ... do not know if their loved ones are still alive," she said on the Senate floor in Washington.