Race to find mudslide victims

A member of the Orange County Fire Department looks for survivors
Picture: AFP/ Robyn Beck

17 people confirmed dead, 17 still missing after disaster strikes on California coastline

Rescue crews in Southern California yesterday resumed the arduous task of combing through tons of debris for survivors from deadly mudslides that struck along the state’s picturesque coastal communities.

Seventeen people are confirmed dead and another 17 people are missing after a wall of mud roared down hillsides in the scenic area between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, according to authorities in Santa Barbara County.

“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 told Los Angeles television station KCAL.

About 500 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters and thermal imaging equipment are on the scene.

Search-and-rescue efforts have been slow as crews have to navigate through waist-deep mud, fallen trees, boulders and other debris.

The devastating mudslides, which were triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month.

The debris flow from the mudslides had destroyed 100 homes, damaged hundreds of other structures and injured 28 people, Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said.

Among the damaged properties were historic hotels and the homes of celebrities including television personality Oprah Winfrey and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who both live in the upscale hillside community of Montecito.

DeGeneres said on her talk show that the picturesque town of 9 000 was a tight-knit community.

“It’s not just a wealthy community, it’s filled with a lot of different types of people from all backgrounds,” she said.

“And there are families missing, there are people who are missing family members. It’s catastrophic.”

Last month’s spate of wildfires, including the Thomas Fire – the largest in the state’s history – stripped hillsides of vegetation and left behind a slick film that prevented the ground from absorbing rainwater.

Living just outside the mandatory evacuation zone, Gary Goldberg said most of his neighbours had probably felt out of harm’s way during the mudslides. If so, it was a false sense of security. A torrent of boulders and debris had come roaring down a rain-saturated hillside near his house in Montecito on Tuesday, he said.

“It came down so fast – it took people out,” Goldberg said.

He evacuated with his wife and two children.

One neighbour’s home was completely washed away, the mud and boulders leaving only the foundation and the chimney behind.

The mudslides, many in areas where evacuations were either voluntary or not ordered at all, are the latest disaster to highlight the vexing task facing officials trying to get people out of the way of fast-moving disasters.

“There clearly were areas that were damaged that were outside of the evacuation area,” state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson said.

She represents the region and last week authored a bill to improve disaster alert systems.

“But trying to figure out where these floods are going to happen really is just good guessing. It’s an art, not a science.”

Last year, when wildfire swept through California’s wine-growing region in Napa and Sonoma counties, thousands of people failed to receive evacuation alerts on their cellphones because the fire had destroyed the cell towers.

In the Thomas Fire, a computer problem had led to the alerts going out too broadly, frightening people who were not in danger and leading others to ignore future warnings, Jackson said.

Last year’s hurricane season also brought evacuation challenges.

Officials had worked for days, even going door to door, to warn residents that the hillsides were ripe for dangerous mudflows after the fires destroyed the vegetation that could hold the soil in place, Santa Barbara County deputy executive officer Dennis Bozanich said. – Reuters

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