California mudslides: The frantic search for survivors

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MONTECITO, Calif. — Rescuers are frantically combing for survivors Thursday after rivers of mud and boulders crushed homes two days ago in Southern California’s Santa Barbara County, killing at least 17 people, weeks after a massive fire charred the area.

At least eight people are missing after Tuesday’s mudslides in and around the oceanside community of Montecito, officials said. An earlier report from county officials that 48 were missing was a “clerical error,” the sheriff’s office said.

As anxious residents await word on their loved ones, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the priority is on finding survivors.

“Right now, our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” Brown told CNN affiliate KCAL on Wednesday.

Rescue workers are using helicopters in a search hampered by blocked roads and downed trees and power lines.

How to help the victims of the California mudslides

Latest developments

• Victims list: Officials have released the names of the 17 people killed. The victims ranged in age from 3 to 89 years old.

• Deadly storm: All the deaths were reported in Santa Barbara County, authorities said. An additional 28 people were injured in the county.

• Destruction: Floodwaters and mudslides destroyed 65 homes and damaged 462 other residences in Santa Barbara County, spokeswoman Susan Klein-Rothschild said Thursday. Eight commercial buildings were destroyed, and 20 were damaged.

• Search: Crews completed a primary search of 75% of the debris field as of Wednesday, and more than 500 first responders and 10 dogs are looking for victims in Santa Barbara County.

• Water: A boil water notice is in place for Montecito and Summerland.

• Weather conditions: No rain is forecast for the area over the next seven days. High temperatures are expected to be in the upper 60s to mid 70s from Thursday through the weekend.

• Road closed: Debris also shut down parts of US 101, a major thoroughfare connecting Northern and Southern California. Closed portions of the freeway aren’t expected to reopen until Monday.

Race against time

In Montecito, rescuers have been tearing through mounds of mud, furniture and fallen trees to search for those trapped.

“We still have to have hope and believe that people can be found. There (are) dogs everywhere searching, but I truly believe we are going to find more people alive,” Montecito resident Curt Pickering told KSBY on Wednesday.

Some received good news of disoriented loved ones rescued from the roof of their muddied, flooded home. But others were not so lucky.

Diane Brewer said her friend, Josie Gower, 69, died after she opened her door and was swept away by the mudslide.

“It was always a full life with Josie. Now, it’s just a hole,” she said.

Catholic school founder Roy Rohter, 84, and his wife, Theresa, were swept from their Montecito home. Rohter died, but his wife was rescued, said Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, which Rohter founded in 1994.

Rebecca Riskin, the founding partner of Montecito real estate company Riskin Partners, also died, the company said. Riskin began selling real estate in Los Angeles and moved to Montecito nearly three decades ago.

Her loss is “incredibly devastating to her friends, family and our community,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Authorities have not released the names of the victims, but some of their relatives have confirmed their identities.

James and Alice Mitchell, an elderly couple from Montecito, are among those missing, their granddaughter, Sarah Weimer, told CNN on Wednesday.

Workers hike to keep senior home running

Besides damaging homes, the mudslides interrupted power and water service for parts of the Montecito area.

And with blockages making driving difficult, some are hiking or biking to work — including staff at a Montecito retirement home, CNN affiliate KEYT reported.

“We do have key staff there. … We just want to let everyone know that all residents are accounted for and safe and sound,” Katie Hoegh of the Casa Dorinda retirement home told KEYT on Wednesday night.

With parts of US 101 closed, motorists moving up or down the coast must choose between time-consuming alternate routes. Some will drive inland to access Interstate 5.

Others are taking boats between Ventura and Santa Barbara to get around the closure.

Some companies were offering ferries about four times a day, carrying roughly 400 people daily, CNN affiliate KTLA reported.

Nannette Clark of Goleta said she used the ferry to visit her grandfather for his 100th birthday in Ventura. Driving around the closure would have taken hours longer, she said.

“The only way to get down here today (in a reasonable time) was to take” the ferry, Clark told KTLA.

Amtrak service in Santa Barbara is suspended through at least Thursday as crews work to reopen train tracks.

Geologist: Risk of mudflow remains for years

The rain poured down on hillsides charred by recent wildfires, which burned vegetation that otherwise could make the terrain more resistant to mudslides.

The Thomas Fire — the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It’s 92% contained, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.

Geologists and forecasters warned that intense rain could trigger deadly mudslides from the scorched areas.

And because of the Thomas Fire, Montecito and other communities below the scarred terrain could remain at risk of mudlfow for a few years, said Randall Jibson, a research geologist with the US Geological Survey.

Montecito may be at slightly less at risk now, because this week’s flooding already brought down vulnerable material.

“(But) no storm brings down everything that is susceptible. There’s almost always more” that could come down, he said.

What can be done? Long term, one option would be more basins to slow down storm runoff and collect debris.

Short term, making the public vigilant and ready to evacuate during heavy rains is key, he said.

Montecito and Carpinteria are especially vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above sea level to sea level in “a matter of just a few miles,” said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County.

The rain fell at more than 1.5 inches per hour at one point early Tuesday in parts of Southern California. About a half inch per hour is enough to start mudslides, said Robbie Monroe of the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Mudslides are not uncommon to the area. In January 2005, a landslide struck La Conchita in Ventura County, killing 10 people.

Pounding rain

The rain poured down on hillsides stripped of their vegetation by the massive blaze that started last month.

The Thomas Fire — the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It’s 92% contained, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.

Without vegetation to make the terrain more resistant to mudslides, boulders and other debris rolled down onto roads and homes Tuesday.

‘Many chose to stay in place’

The storm hit hard between 3 and 6 a.m. Tuesday as Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for help, the sheriff said.

Before the storm hit, Santa Barbara issued mandatory evacuations for 7,000 people, and thousands more homes were in voluntary evacuation zones, including in parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, which are below areas scorched by wildfires, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said.

“While some residents cooperated with the evacuations, many did not. Many chose to stay in place,” said Brown, the sheriff.

Sheriff deputies spent Monday conducting door-to-door evacuations in the mandatory evacuation area. But the area where homes were destroyed, south of Highway 192, was not in a mandatory evacuation zone.

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