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Extreme weather

Rescuers search for survivors of deadly California mudslides that left 15 dead, demolished homes and swamped streets

The wealthy enclave of Montecito bore the brunt of mudslides triggered by a combination of record rainfall and hillsides left barren by recent wildfires

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 10:07am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 10:36pm

Californian authorities in Santa Barbara County were still trying to reach new areas and dig into the destruction to find dead, injured or trapped people in the early hours of Wednesday after a powerful mud flow swept away dozens of homes.

At least 15 people were confirmed dead on Wednesday morning, at least 25 were injured and at least 50 had to be rescued by helicopters.

Those numbers were expected to increase as the search expanded on Wednesday, with a major search and rescue team arriving from nearby Los Angeles County, as well as help from the coastguard and National Guard along with law enforcement. Their job is to find more survivors.

“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.

The sheriff said “at least several dozen homes that have been either destroyed or severely damaged, and likely many other ones are in areas that are as-yet inaccessible”.

He said it’s likely they’ll find more people amid that destruction.

The search for the missing – whose numbers are uncertain – will continue through the night and then intensify after daylight on Wednesday, authorities said.

Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, said Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos.

The wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres. Winfrey’s home survived the storm and slides. In an Instagram post 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. 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.

Another 20 people were taken to hospital, with four of those described as “severely critical” by Dr Brett Wilson of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep, fire-scarred Santa Ynez Mountains. Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth does not absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.

The torrent arrived suddenly and with a sound some likened to a freight train as water carrying rocks and trees washed away cars and trashed homes.

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 neighbour’s home. He was not 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 per cent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.

US Highway 101, the link connecting Ventura and Santa Barbara, looked like a muddy river and was expected to be closed for two days.