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Extreme weather

Montecito mudslides: at least 17 dead as hundreds join search for victims in devastated California community

Search-and-rescue teams from all over California were working their way through the muck and wreckage of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 4:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 4:48am

Rescuers used dogs and helicopters were searching for victims of powerful mudslides which left at least 17 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey.

Heavy rains on Tuesday sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month’s ferocious wildfires.

“We are saddened to report that the death toll has now risen to 17,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters, saying it had been “another extremely challenging day.”

At least 28 people were injured, authorities said. Twelve remained hospitalised, four in critical condition, while 30,000 remained subject to mandatory evacuation orders.

After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 64 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 446.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who has been touted this week as a possible 2020 candidate for the White House, was among those affected by the mudslides.

Winfrey posted a video of herself outside her Montecito mansion wading through near-knee deep mud.

In some neighbourhoods still bearing the scars of the Thomas Fire, houses were completely destroyed while others nearby were untouched.

“Part of the problem with this is the fire created a situation where the dirt was able to wash down,” said Richard Targonia, a resident of nearby Carpinteria.

“Had we still had all the vegetation on the hills it would not have been as much of an issue,” Targonia said.

“I have lived here my whole life,” said Melissa Ausanka-Crues, 29, a nurse.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was another Montecito resident impacted by the storm.

“My family has had a house here for 30 years and never seen something like this.”

DeGeneres posted a picture on Twitter of herself standing in mud next to a downed tree near her home.

“This is the street in front of our house,” she said.

“I don’t know anything about our house yet. I’m heartbroken for our community of Montecito.”

“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.”

“A lot of the street signs are gone, the roads are impassable. It all has to be done on foot,” said Deputy Dan Page, chief of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department rescue team.

Rescue crews worked up to 12 hours a day and risked stepping on nails or shattered glass, or being exposed to raw sewage, or dealing with leaking gas, Page said.

The US Coast Guard released footage of a couple, their two young children and two dogs being plucked from their roof and hoisted up to a helicopter in baskets.

Yellow bulldozers were clearing the roads of tonnes of sticky brown mud in Montecito and other towns as utility workers restored downed power lines.

Crews marked where bodies were found, often far away from a home, and used that information to guess where other victims might have ended up as the surging mud carried or buried them.

Tom Oschner, who had come to check on the remains of his sister’s house said the destruction was devastating.

“It’s total. There’s mud inside all the way in. Some of the structure was swept away,” he said, adding the building was now filled with debris and trees.

Sheriff Brown earlier told CBS’s This Morning that some residents had ignored evacuation orders.

“I think most people are really shocked at the extent of the damage and how big the impact was to the area,” Brown said.

“Although we knew this was coming, you couldn’t help but be amazed at the intensity of the storm and the result of the mudslide and the water that cascaded down the hills.”

Only an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of residents fled when ordered, and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

It could take days or even longer before the work is finished.

“That’s always our mentality: ‘Hey, we’re going to find someone alive,’” Page said. “You never really know. You never know exactly what the human body is capable of.”

In 2014, a mudslide in rural Oso in Washington state killed 43 people. The last body was found four months later.

Additional reporting by Associated Press