UPDATE: Death toll hits 17 in California mudslides; 13 missing
MONTECITO, Calif. — Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed an estimated 100 houses, swept away cars and left at least 17 victims dead.
“It’s just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven’t heard from them – we have to find them,” said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents’ home was wrecked by the torrent of mud, trees and boulders that flowed down a fire-scarred mountain and slammed into this coastal town in Santa Barbara County early Tuesday.
The drenching storm that triggered the disaster had cleared out, giving way to sunny skies, as hundreds of searchers carefully combed a landscape strewn with hazards.
“We’ve gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud,” said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief. “The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It’s crusty on top but soft underneath, so we’re having to be very careful.”
Buzzerio led a team of 14 firefighters and six dogs in thick debris. They used long-handled tools to search the muck in the painstaking task.
Teams rescued three people Wednesday, but they also discovered two more bodies, raising the death count to 17, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Thirteen people were missing.
The deluge destroyed 100 houses and damaged 300 others, Santa Barbara County authorities said. Eight commercial properties were destroyed and 20 damaged.
Some 500 firefighters and other rescue workers were searching debris spread across a wide swath of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.
Helicopters were used to hoist more than 50 people to safety from roofs, where they scrambled to escape the mud or because debris had blocked roads and left them stranded.
At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued a family of five and their two dogs. Video shot from the hovering chopper showed a house surrounded by muck and debris as a mother, muddy from the waist down, handed her infant to two rescuers on the roof and then got help onto it. She and her newborn were hoisted to safety, followed by the rest of the family.
Weimer’s missing parents, Jim and Alice Mitchell, didn’t heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home Monday to celebrate her father’s 89th birthday. She hoped to find them in a shelter or hospital.
“They’re an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house. That’s their forever home,” Weimer said.
People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.
“We totally thought we were out of the woods,” said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. “I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, ‘This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.'”
Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.
Marco Farrell, a real estate agent, cited “evacuation fatigue” as his reason not to leave – a decision he wouldn’t make next time. He woke to the sound of pounding rain early Tuesday and went outside to investigate.
He was two blocks from home when he heard a rumble that he realized was the mudslide he feared.
“I ran as fast I could and yelled, ‘Flash flood!’ as I passed neighbors’ homes,” he said.
Farrell ran inside to warn his parents, and within a minute, a boulder plowed through the kitchen door. The mud flow went through the home and burst through a backdoor.
Farrell planned to float his eld erly parents to a hillside on a surfboard, but it didn’t come to that. The mud never got above their thighs and after about an hour of huddling in a hallway, he led his folks and dog outside where a passing firetruck took them to safety.
The flow was so powerful it swept several homes off their foundations, crushed others and wrapped cars around trees. At least two unrecognizably mangled cars were carried like driftwood all the way to the beach, where they were partly covered in seaweed.
In Montecito, heavy debris still covered a stretch U.S. Highway 101, closing the main link between Ventura and Santa Barbara for 30 miles. It was not expected to be open until Monday.
Another storm-related death was reported in Northern California, where a man was killed when his car was apparently struck by falling rocks in a landslide Tuesday evening in Napa County.
ORIGINAL POST: Death toll hits 15 in California mudslides; search goes on
MONTECITO, Calif. — The death toll from the mudslides that struck Southern California climbed to 15 on Wednesday as rescue crews searched for anyone trapped, injured or dead in the onslaught that smashed homes and swept away cars.
The torrential rainstorm that set off the disaster cleared out and was no longer a hindrance as searchers made their way across a landscape strewn with boulders and covered in cement-like mud shoulder-high in some places.
“Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
He said that several dozen homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and that there are probably many more in similar condition in areas still inaccessible.
At least 15 people were confirmed dead, Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Yaneris Muniz said early Wednesday as the search continued through the night.
At least 25 people were injured, 50 or more had to be rescued by helicopters, and an undetermined number of others were missing, authorities said. Four of the injured were reported in severely critical condition.
The search was set to expand with the arrival of a major search-and-rescue team from nearby Los Angeles County and help from the Coast Guard and the National Guard.
Most of the deaths occurred in and around Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.
Winfrey’s home survived the mudslides. In an Instagram post on the same day many Democrats were talking about her for president because of her rousing speech at the Golden Globes, she shared photos of the deep mud in her backyard and video of rescue helicopters hovering over her house.
“What a day!” Winfrey said. “Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara.”
A mud-caked 14-year-old girl was among the dozens rescued on the ground Tuesday. She was pulled from a collapsed Montecito home where she had been trapped for hours.
“I thought I was dead for a minute there,” the dazed girl could be heard saying on video posted by KNBC-TV before she was taken away on a stretcher.
The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep Santa Ynez Mountains, where hillsides were stripped of vegetation last month by the biggest wildfire on record in California, a 440-square-mile blaze that destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures.
Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth doesn’t absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.
The torrent arrived suddenly and with a thunderous sound.
Thomas Tighe said he stepped outside his Montecito home in the middle of the night and heard “a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was … boulders moving as the mud was rising.”
Two cars were missing from his driveway, and he watched two others slowly move sideways down the middle of the street in a river of mud.
In daylight, Tighe was shocked to see a body pinned by muck against his neighbor’s home. He wasn’t sure who it was.
Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because of heavy rain in the forecast for the first time in 10 months. Evacuations were ordered beneath recently burned areas of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
But only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.
U.S. Highway 101, the link connecting Ventura and Santa Barbara, looked like a muddy river and was expected to be closed for two days.
The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. Montecito got more than a half-inch in five minutes, while Carpinteria received nearly an inch in 15 minutes.
“All hell broke loose,” said Peter Hartmann, a dentist who moonlights as a news photographer for the local website Noozhawk. “Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines. The large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants.”
Hartmann watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck.
“It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud,” he said.