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Death toll in Montecito mudslide rises to 19, while 101 Freeway will remain closed indefinitely

Louis Sahagun and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- As the death toll in the Montecito mudslides increased to 19 on Saturday, officials announced that the 101 Freeway would remain closed indefinitely.

Search and rescue crews recovered the body of Morgan Corey, 25, who was found in debris near Mill Road about 9 a.m. Saturday, officials said. She was among at least five people who were still listed as missing.

At a late afternoon news conference at the Earl Warren Fairgrounds, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Eric Peterson spoke about the difficulties and challenges faced by emergency responders in their search for survivors.

"I have felt the heartbreak of knowing that even with all of your skill and all of your training and all of your planning, you couldn't save everybody," he said. "No one could have planned for the size and scope of what a 200-year storm immediately following our largest wildfire could bring."

Emergency crews remain in search-and-rescue mode, he said. However, he added, "after every hour it becomes less likely we will find someone alive, but there is always hope."

Highway 101, a major north-south artery that carries 100,000 vehicles through the Central Coast each day, was initially expected to open Monday, but officials said cleaning up an approximately two-mile stretch of the freeway was proving more difficult than imagined.

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"It's really an overwhelming situation and we don't want to give an estimate that isn't accurate," CalTrans spokesman Colin Jones said.

CalTrans crews, aided by private contractors and the Army Corps of Engineers, have been working around the clock on the approximately two-mile stretch of the debris-strewn freeway near Montecito. Crews have removed most of the vehicles abandoned in the storm, including a number of tractor-trailers, but a significant amount of debris and mud remains.

The cleanup Saturday focused on what the agency calls "dewatering" – using pumps to suck up the mud and rain water on the freeway. In a section of the road near Olive Mill Road -- one of the lowest points in the city -- there was two feet of standing water and storm drains were clogged, Jones said. Once all the mud and debris is removed, the pavement and overpasses must be evaluated for structural safety, and then signs and guardrails reinstalled and lines repainted, he said.

"CalTrans will get the 101 open," he said. "We just don't know when at this point."

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