California mudslide death toll at 17

DEVASTATION::The flood left Montecito strewn with mud, boulders, wrecked cars, trashed buildings and tree limbs in a scene compared to a World War I battlefield

AP, MONTECITO, California

Fri, Jan 12, 2018 - Page 6

Hundreds of searchers yesterday continued the grueling work of hunting for survivors and digging up bodies in the sea of mud and wreckage left by flash flooding in the wealthy coastal enclave of Montecito, California.

Muck-spattered searchers from around the state slogged through knee-deep ooze, poking long poles into the mud to probe for victims.

Search dogs clambered on shattered heaps of wood that used to be homes.

The death toll from Tuesday’s predawn flash flood rose to 17 on Wednesday as more bodies were found. Another 17 were still reported missing.

“It’s just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven’t heard from them — we have to find them,” said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents’ home was wrecked.

The couple, Jim and Alice Mitchell, did not heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home on Monday to celebrate Jim Mitchell’s 89th birthday.

Weimer hoped to find them in a shelter or hospital.

Other people were rescued after being trapped for more than a day in their homes.

Devon Crail, 39, of Santa Barbara came back to his parents’ home on Wednesday to gather belongings and medication they were not able to take with them when they managed to leave that morning.

“I talked to them at about four in the morning,” Crail said. “They had tried to open the front door to leave and the mud started pouring in. They were able to force the door closed and stuck it out until sunrise when they got out.”

Search-and-rescue teams from all over California were working their way through the muck and wreckage of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

However, the flood left it strewn with mud, boulders, wrecked cars, trashed buildings and tree limbs in a scene that Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown has compared to a World War I battlefield.

By Wednesday, about 500 searchers had covered about 75 percent of the inundated area, authorities said.

However, they had a long and arduous slog ahead.

“A lot of the street signs are gone, the roads are impassable. It all has to be done on foot,” said Deputy Dan Page, chief of the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which sent help to the scene.

“We’ve gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud,” Los Angeles County fire battalion chief Anthony Buzzerio said. “The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It’s crusty on top, but soft underneath, so we’re having to be very careful.”

A dozen people were hospitalized at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and four were in critical condition, Brett Wilson said.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town, but it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

“We totally thought we were out of the woods,” said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. “I was frozen yesterday morning thinking: ‘This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.’”

Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

It could take days or even longer before the work is finished, but rescuers never really abandon the idea that there might still be people out there, Page said.

“That’s always our mentality: ‘Hey, we’re going to find someone alive,’” Page said. “You never really know. You never know exactly what the human body is capable of.”