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Montecito victims mourned as toll rises to 20

Michael Livingston and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- Soon after the sun set over Santa Barbara, Ann Hagan grabbed a marker and wrote a short message to the 20 strangers who died in the devastating Montecito mudslides.

"In our hearts," she wrote before signing her name on a whiteboard put up at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

Hagan was one of thousands of people who huddled at the courthouse late Sunday evening to take part in a candlelight vigil.

They came to pay tribute to the young and old -- among them mothers, fathers, grandparents, small children -- who did not survive when rainwater poured down fire-ravaged slopes and unleashed a deluge of debris into their neighborhoods.

"This is my home too," said Hagan, 66, of Goleta. "Those people were a part of my community, a part of my family."

As Supervisor Das Williams read out each victim's name, some in the crowd wept. Others embraced. Many closed their eyes and bowed their heads, their faces illuminated by flickering candles.

"This is a healing experience for everyone here," said Jennifer Adame, 44, of Santa Barbara. "Everyone feels frightened by the tragedies in the past two months."

As the community struggled to cope with the tremendous loss, authorities said Sunday that they had transitioned from search and rescue to search and recovery. For days, they had scoured the devastation for signs of life. Now hope dwindled of finding more survivors in the muck.

"This decision was not made lightly," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, authorities had announced that the death toll had climbed to 20. Searchers had found the body of the latest victim: 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa, whose 6-year-old son, Peerawat, was also killed. At least four other people, including Sutthithepa's 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, still are unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, crews continued to clear a two-mile stretch of mud- and debris-strewn U.S. Highway 101, which remained closed indefinitely.

Officials had expected to reopen the highway -- a major artery that carries about 100,000 vehicles through the Central Coast each day -- on Monday.

By Sunday, California Department of Transportation crews had removed 150 yards of debris from northbound lanes and 80 yards of debris from southbound lanes, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said.

 

But officials said cleaning up one part of the freeway at Olive Mill Road was proving especially difficult because, as one of the lowest points in the area, it had served as a magnet for water and mud.

About 75 people are assigned to the project, which is focused on what Caltrans calls "dewatering" -- using pumps to suck up the mud and rainwater. Once all the mud and debris are removed, the pavement and overpasses will need to be evaluated for structural safety. Then lines will need to be repainted and signs and guardrails reinstalled.

By Monday, "we'll have a better understanding of when the freeway will be open and when people can expect to drive it again," Shivers said.

State Route 192, which cuts across the foothills, is also unsafe in places, and officials are trying to establish an alternate route as quickly as possible.

At least 296 buildings were damaged or destroyed by last week's mudslides, officials said Sunday after a partial, preliminary inspection. In that count were 73 homes that were destroyed and 61 that sustained major damage.

Those numbers are expected to rise, since inspectors have completed about 35 percent of assessments of residential and commercial buildings.

On Wednesday, Santa Barbara County will open an assistance center at Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara to offer resources to help the community recover and rebuild.

At Sunday's vigil, Lauren Watson, whose family put up the whiteboard they called the "healing wall," said they planned to take the messages around the area starting Monday -- to the Center Stage Theater, farmers markets and other places downtown. Watson said the wall may even travel to Ventura.

"We want to go to as many places as we can," said his mother, Laura Watson. "It's a beautiful thing to do for the community."

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