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As rain falls, Washington mudslide search cautiously trudges on

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Rain showers forecast for Sunday at the scene of the state's deadly landslide again were expected to hamper the efforts of rescuers digging through the contaminated slurry of debris.

Ponds formed in "the pile," forcing crews to "de-water" areas to resume searching, Snohomish County officials said. In the tangle of timber, septic tank fluid and housing materials, rescuers have found music records, wallets, gun safes and ATVs. Hundreds of photographs salvaged from the mud have been assembled on a table, shielded from the rain by a white tent.

But worries about further slides or flooding have led officials to pull back rescuers several times in the week since the initial devastation, and the terrain's increasing water saturation has kept alive those fears. To keep workers and volunteers safe, federal scientists, including geologists and a meteorologist, have kept their eyes on monitors placed alongside the collapsed hillside.

About 1.3 inches of rain fell near the site during the daylong period ending at 5 p.m. Saturday, National Weather Service forecaster Allen Kam said Saturday night from his station in Seattle.

The Emerald City this month has recorded more than double its average rainfall for March, breaking a 64-year-old record with 8.68 inches through Friday, the weather service said.

One of the reporting stations near the mudslide -- an hour north of Seattle -- was about 3 inches shy, as of Friday, of a record 19.92 inches in 1997.

The rain in Oso should taper off Sunday night and not return until at least the second half of this week, Kam said.

"This will give them a break," he said.

Both rain and logging contributed to the landslide by letting a section of hill grow heavy with water, scientists have said. However, erosion caused by the river at the bottom of the hillside largely drove the collapse. It chiseled away at the buttress, leaving nothing to impede the sliding mass of heavy dirt.

"Therefore in many respects, the landslide we see was an accident waiting to happen by virtue of the geological situation," UCLA geography professor Antony Orme said in a telephone interview Saturday. "You had a prescription for disaster."

Orme, who has served as a landslide expert for the state of Washington in court, said that as he spoke he was holding satellite imagery of the devastated Steelhead Haven community.

"What a delightful place, but hovering over them was this massive hillside that was going to fail," Orme said. "It's all very sad, that those lives lost will never be able to be brought back. It's a reminder to discourage people from building their homes where there is this danger, partially from logging but entirely natural."

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