Southern California mudslides: Hundreds still await rescue; 15 dead

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A day after mudslides crushed several southern California homes and left at least 15 people dead, rescuers faced a difficult task Wednesday as hundreds of people remain cut off by debris in one neighborhood and others are still missing, officials said.

Heavy rains early Tuesday caused rivers of mud and debris to run down from hillsides in Santa Barbara County, demolishing homes in the seaside community of Montecito. The rainfall came just weeks after a massive wildfire stripped the landscape of vegetation that might have made the area more flood-resistant.

On Wednesday morning, 300 people were trapped in the Romero Canyon area of Montecito because debris was blocking their way out of the neighborhood, said Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Yaneris Muniz.

“We can’t get to them, and they can’t get to us… Once we have daybreak, you will see helicopters start rescuing people there,” Muniz said.

Latest developments

  • Deadly storm: The 15 deaths were reported in Santa Barbara County, authorities said.
  • More missing: Muniz said it’s unclear how many people are missing, but searches are ongoing. Earlier, officials said at least two dozen people were unaccounted for.
  • Hundreds of calls: As the storm hit hard between 3 and 6 a.m. Tuesday, sheriff’s office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for assistance, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
  • Rescues: Dozens of people have been rescued in Santa Barbara County, officials said. The US Coast Guard said it used helicopters Tuesday to collect people from rooftops, including a couple and their three children – an infant, a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old – in Carpinteria.
  • Road closed: US 101 in parts of Montecito and Santa Barbara will remain closed for at least 48 hours because of the muddy debris covering it, authorities said Tuesday.
  • Intense rain: By Tuesday, more than 5.5 inches of rain had fallen over two days in parts of Ventura County, said the National Weather Service. In Carpinteria, nearly 1 inch fell in 15 minutes, the agency said.

“River of mud”

Thomas Tighe told KCAL he was outside his Montecito home and heard “a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was… boulders moving as the mud was rising.”

He saw two cars moving sideways down the middle of the street “in a river of mud.”

Peter Hartmann said the destruction was everywhere.

“There were gas mains that had popped, where you could hear the hissing,” he told the TV station. “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.”

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

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

Sheriff deputies spent Monday conducting door-to-door evacuations for 7,000 people in a mandatory evacuation area. But, the area where homes were destroyed, south of Highway 192, was not in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Rescue personnel still have areas to search, Brown said.

“It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere, with huge boulders, rocks, (downed) trees, power lines, wrecked cars – lots of obstacles and challenges for rescue personnel to get to homes,” Brown said.

“Mud came in an instant”

Ben Hyatt said a river of mud crashed through a neighbor’s house in Montecito, the affluent community of about 8,000 east of Santa Barbara.

“Apparently, one of their cars ended (up) in their backyard. We have neighbors at (the) top of the street that evacuated to their roof,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said his Montecito house was “surrounded by mud,” and a washing machine had drifted into his front yard.

“Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking. (It) surrounded the house, 2 to 3 feet,” he said.

The debris also shut down parts of the oceanside US 101, a major thoroughfare connecting northern and southern California.

A stew of floodwater, mud, tree limbs and other debris covered the highway in Montecito, making it impassable. Some cars were left on the highway, mired wheel-deep in the muck.

As workers clear debris to make areas accessible, more damage is revealed. Along Montecito’s Coast Village Road, the mudslide overturned trees and covered the pavement. At one spot, a car appeared to be sheared in half – its front half pointed skyward, jammed against a pile of muddy wreckage.

More than 1 inch of rain per hour

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.

The downpour fell in areas 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 was 92 percent contained, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.

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.

“That’s definitely at play here. It’s just a mess,” he said.

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

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