California mudslides death toll rises as rescue crews search for survivors
The death toll from mudslides that struck Southern California has climbed to 15 as rescue crews searched for people trapped, injured or dead in the onslaught that smashed homes and swept away cars.
The torrential rainstorm that set off the disaster ended and was no longer a hindrance as searchers made their way across a landscape strewn with boulders and covered in cement-like mud shoulder-high in some places.
Fifteen people were confirmed dead and two dozen people remained missing, said Amber Anderson, a Santa Barbara County spokeswoman.
"We have no idea where they're at. We think somewhere in the debris field," she said. Damage is spread over 30 square miles.
"Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
He said several dozen homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and that there are probably many more in similar condition in areas still inaccessible.
At least 25 people were injured, 50 or more had to be rescued by helicopters. Four of the injured were reported in severely critical condition.
The search was set to expand with the arrival of a major search-and-rescue team from nearby Los Angeles County and help from the Coast Guard and the National Guard.
Most of the deaths occurred in and around Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people north-west of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.
Winfrey's home survived the mudslides. In an Instagram post on the same day many Democrats were talking about her for president because of her speech at the Golden Globes, she shared photos of the deep mud in her garden and video of rescue helicopters hovering over her house.
She said: "What a day! Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara."
A mud-caked 14-year-old girl was among the dozens rescued on the ground on Tuesday. She was pulled from a collapsed Montecito home where she had been trapped for hours.
"I thought I was dead for a minute there," the dazed girl could be heard saying on video posted by KNBC-TV before she was taken away on a stretcher.
The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep Santa Ynez Mountains, where hillsides were stripped of vegetation last month by the biggest wildfire on record in California, a 440-square-mile blaze that destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures.
Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth does not absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.
Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding when heavy rain was forecast for the first time in 10 months. Evacuations were ordered beneath recently burned areas of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
But only an estimated 10 to 15% of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.
US Highway 101, the link connecting Ventura and Santa Barbara, looked like a muddy river and was expected to be closed for two days.
The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3.30am local time on Tuesday. Montecito got more than a half-inch in five minutes, while Carpinteria received nearly an inch in 15 minutes.
"All hell broke loose," said Peter Hartmann, a dentist who also works as a news photographer for the local website Noozhawk.
"Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines. The large aluminium poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants."