By Jonathan Kaminsky
ARLINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Rescue workers sifted through mucky rubble on Tuesday amid dwindling hopes of finding any more survivors from among scores of people still missing from a devastating weekend mudslide in Washington state that killed at least 14.
About a dozen workers searched overnight for as many as 176 people who have been reported missing since a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday morning, swallowing dozens of homes near Oso, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said.
Compounding their sense of urgency was a fear of flooding as water levels rose behind a crude dam of mud and rubble that had been dumped into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River by the slide in an area along State Route 530, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest state.
Authorities said they were hoping the number of people listed as missing would decline as they had perhaps been double-counted or had been slow to alert family and officials about their whereabouts.
The rescuers had failed to locate any more people in the rubble early on Tuesday.
John Pennington, Snohomish County's director of emergency management, said that after three days, the operation is shifting from a rescue operation to a recovery mission.
"I never lose faith and a lot of the people in this community will never lose faith, but there's a realism element that's entered in," he told NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday.
"We have responded as well as we can, and we will continue to do that, but ... we are turning that very delicate corner in the recovery operation," Pennington said.
'DEALING WITH DEVASTATION'
Search crews and volunteers were "dealing with devastation" on the ground, Pennington said, adding they cannot use heavy equipment because of the conditions and must work by hand.
President Barack Obama, who was in Europe on Monday for a meeting with world leaders, signed an emergency declaration ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and local relief efforts, the White House said.
More than 100 properties were hit by the mudslide. Eight people were injured.
A 22-week-old baby injured in the slide remained in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being taken there by helicopter along with his mother who also was hurt, the hospital said early on Tuesday.
A report filed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 highlighting "the potential for a large catastrophic failure" was one of many warnings issued about the area where the disaster occurred, the Seattle Times newspaper reported.
The rescue effort after Saturday's mudslide has been fraught with treacherous conditions and stalled efforts.
Quicksand-like conditions forced rescue workers to suspend their efforts at dusk on Sunday. Some workers, mired in mud up to their armpits, had to be dragged to safety.
Search crew workers were forced again to briefly retreat on Monday from the western edge of the slide area after movement was detected along a 1,500-foot (460-meter) stretch of earth.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Scott Malone and Meredith Mazzilli)