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Death toll from slides rises to 15 with daybreak air rescues set to begin in Montecito

James Queally And Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- The death toll from a massive debris flow that buried homes and cars under a torrent of mud and boulders has risen to 15 in Montecito, where local personnel and the U.S. Coast Guard are planning to continue rescue operations Wednesday morning.

About 300 people remained stuck in their homes in Montecito's Romero Canyon neighborhood and authorities planned to launch helicopter rescues at daybreak Wednesday morning.

The mudslides began around 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, when intense rains dislodged boulders and caused heavy mudflow along hillsides that were scarred by the sprawling Thomas fire late last year. A number of homes were ripped from their foundations, with some pulled more than a half-mile by water and mud before they broke apart.

"It looked like a World War I battlefield," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said on Twitter that the death toll had risen to 15 early Wednesday morning, but could not provide additional details. With much of the area still inaccessible, officials have said they fear that number could rise.

It's unclear how many remain missing, while dozens of residents have been injured, according to officials.

Southern California was drenched Tuesday, but nowhere did the rainstorm inflict more pain than in Montecito, just weeks after the community dealt with the devastating Thomas fire.

Some 500 firefighters from across the state rushed to help, with crews struggling through clogged roads, waist-deep mud and downed trees throughout the day in search of victims. Dozens of survivors were hoisted to safety in helicopters.

The rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito, flooding the creek and sending mud and boulders into residential neighborhoods, officials said.

At least 7,000 people have been evacuated from the area.

The storm system that hit Southern California beginning Monday dumped more than 5 inches of rain on some parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and officials had been concerned that sections of the state damaged by last month's wildfires would be susceptible to heavy mudflows. Soil scorched by fire is less able to absorb water.

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Mudflows washed out a nearly 30-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway between Santa Barbara and Ventura, and also prompted evacuations in parts of Burbank and Los Angeles on Tuesday. The heavy weather also caused a surge in motor vehicle accidents across the Southland, according to the California Highway Patrol.

But Santa Barbara County clearly took the brunt of the damage, where mud, boulders, husks of cars and housing frames were common sights. The section of Montecito that was hit hardest was actually south of the Thomas fire's burn scar, and not subject to mandatory evacuation, according to Mike Eliason, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

But a creek that feeds the Pacific Ocean swelled early Tuesday morning, raining boulders and flood waters onto residents as they slept.

The rains were like a starter's gun for many in Montecito and nearby Carpinteria. Peter Lapidus said the sound of droplets pummeling his home forced him out of bed around 4 a.m. Tuesday.

"It was like a bomb went off," he said. "It wasn't raining hard, and then it was like you flipped a switch."

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