Death toll hits 17 in California mudslides; 13 missing

Thursday, January 11, 2018
A damaged home is shown Wednesday in Montecito, California. Dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged and several people were killed Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month.
Marcio Jose Sanchez ~ Associated Press

MONTECITO, Calif. -- Authorities now say 17 people have died in Southern California mudslides and another 13 are missing.

The death toll rose Wednesday as searchers pulled two more bodies from the inundated area in the Santa Barbara County enclave of Montecito.

Flash floods there Tuesday swept immense amounts of mud, water and debris down from foothills that were stripped of brush by the recent Thomas wildfire.

Authorities say at least 100 homes have been destroyed.

Hundreds of firefighters and others are hunting through the mud and wreckage. Three people were rescued Wednesday and authorities say about 75 percent of the devastated area has been searched.

Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones as rescue crews searched.

"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 searchers worked carefully in 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."

Fifteen people were confirmed dead and two dozen people remained missing, said Amber Anderson, a Santa Barbara County spokeswoman.

"We have no idea where they're at. We think somewhere in the debris field," she said.

Buzzerio led a team of 14 firefighters and six dogs in the debris field, which was spread over 30 square miles. They used long-handled tools to search the muck. By lunchtime, they hadn't found anybody, dead or alive.

Twenty people remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.

The deluge destroyed 100 houses and damaged 300 others, Santa Barbara County authorities said. Eight commercial properties were destroyed and 20 damaged.

Weimer's parents, Jim and Alice Mitchell, didn't heed a voluntary evacuation warning and had decided to stay 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, 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, had counted itself 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."'

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.

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