Officials Identify 17 Victims of Montecito Mudslides, 43 People Still Missing
Seventeen people killed in devastating mudslides were identified Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of rescue workers continued to search through mud and muck for any remaining victims.
Santa Barbara County released a list with the names of the dead, who ranged from ages 3 to 89. The cause of death was "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire," according to the Santa Barbara County Coroner's Office.
As of Thursday afternoon, 43 people were considered missing, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.
The first winter storm of the year brought a deluge that overwhelmed communities near recent burn areas, particularly the wealthy enclave of Montecito, home of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.
The heavy rain triggered flash flooding and mud and debris flows that killed 17 people and injured 28 more. Eight people are still missing — officials had earlier said the number missing was 48 but issued a correction, noting the mistake was due to a clerical error.
City and county fire officials told the AP that 64 homes were destroyed, down from an earlier estimate of 100 homes, and more than 400 damaged, though these numbers could vary as more information trickles in.
Work to clear several feet of mud on the 101 freeway in Montecito slowed on Thursday because of the possibility that mud may contain human remains, authorities said.
“We still need to find out if there’s any remains or any life potential that’s left in there,” Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Anthony Buzzerio said. He was directing urban search-and-rescue teams and working on a plan to find and preserve human remains — while keeping his crew safe.
“It’s inherently dangerous,” he said. “We don’t know what’s under there.”
The mud could be toxic from busted sewage lines. It could contain sharp and dangerous objects. The crews will use feeler poles, small boats and skip loaders to carefully search the debris field.
That search could take days.
Over the past two days, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and other first responders have been rescuing people out of their mud-surrounded homes and ferrying them to safety.
One family that escaped from their home were Sally Barati, Shawn Babaieamin and their two children.
"We've been told that this was going to happen to us, but we got 3 feet of mud outside of our house — kind of blocked our gate and garage, so we couldn't do anything," Barati said.
They lost power Thursday and decided they couldn't stay at their home anymore, so a large military truck helped them to leave, taking the family out from the second-floor window. They were dropped off at the local shopping center.
A crew of 700 were on scene early Thursday helping with search, rescue and cleanup, hailing from a wide range of law enforcement, military and local organizations, including urban search and rescue, swift water rescue, sheriff and police personnel, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and utility company representatives, according to Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Fire Department.
Crews have worked day and night facing difficult conditions, digging through a thick sludge 15 feet deep or more, as well as downed trees, boulders, loose ground and even buried swimming pools, which can pose a threat to rescuers who can't see what's under their feet.
"It's unlike a flooding event or like where we have a river breach, where after the water leaves, we're able to search the area completely and thoroughly," Anderson told KPCC.
Search and cleanup efforts are expected to take days.
Montecito resident David Brown lives near Olive Mill Road in a condo inundated by mud. Luckily, he and his father live in units on the second and third floor, high enough to escape major damage.
“This is something that you would see in a disaster movie and never thought it would possibly happen in this area,” said Brown, who worried that any more rain might just send more mud tumbling down.
“The possibility is a scary thought,” Brown added.
Farther south in Los Angeles, crews managed to clear much of the debris from La Tuna Canyon Road, though 23 residences from the 8300 block to the 8800 block were still under evacuation to allow that work to continue. Fire officials said the road would remain closed to the 210 freeway until debris removal was completed.