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Buried in mud, Montecito faces a daunting cleanup with no end in sight

Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

"You can't just rinse it off to your neighbors," he added. Chrestenson leaned on the broom outside the Honor Bar -- a popular nightspot, now closed. He pointed to a mud-caked photo of an infant that was unearthed in the rubble.

"People's lives just tore through here," he said. He knew more discoveries would await.

Montecito is accustomed to dealing with natural calamity. Brush fires roar through the hills every few years and periodic storms batter the coast. But the mud -- piled up with cars, rocks, tree trunks and refrigerators -- is a disaster on a different scale.

"In wind storms, the power lines are down. In rain, the sewers may clog," Sneddon said. "This is impacting everything: gas, power, sewer, communications and roads. And we have a high level of damage in a concentrated area."

For the medley of agencies involved, the response is a puzzle that's always in flux: Search teams can't use chainsaws or cutters if ruptured gas lines are leaking. Sanitation crews can't operate pumps without electricity. And no rescuer can reach the wreckage if streets are blocked.

The top priority is to keep the 50 miles of roads and 25 bridges merely passable for firefighters as well as bulldozers, dump trucks and cranes. Open and drivable was the goal.

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"We're not working on getting them beautiful," Sneddon added.

Crews are also breaking up large rocks, clearing 250 culverts and trying to open up debris basins -- tasks that are more urgent as forecasters predict storms later this week.

"There's already a lot of debris, mud and boulder. When it does rain, it makes it so stuff can move," Sneddon said. "It's going to be a constant effort to keep the area clear."

The 101 Freeway remained closed here after a swampy bayou formed in the highway's lowest point, right next to the Montecito Inn. Jim Shivers, a California Department of Transportation spokesman, said the freeway was shut down indefinitely as crews labored to pump out water and debris.

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