WATCH: US Coast guard rescues mudslide victims with helicopter; over a dozen dead
A storm that slammed a California coastal community is over. The search for its victims is not.
Authorities in Santa Barbara County were still trying to reach new areas and dig into the destruction to find dead, injured or trapped people after a powerful mud flow swept away dozens of homes.
At least 15 people were confirmed dead Tuesday, at least 25 were injured and at least 50 had to be rescued by helicopters.
Those numbers could increase when the search is deepened and expanded Wednesday, with a major search-and-rescue team arriving from nearby Los Angeles County and help from the Coast Guard and National Guard along with law enforcement.
They’ll focus first on finding survivors.
“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.
The sheriff said “at least several dozen homes that have been either destroyed or severely damaged, and likely many other ones are in areas that are as-yet inaccessible.”
He said it’s likely they’ll find more people amid that destruction.
The search for the missing — whose numbers are uncertain — will continue through the night and then intensify after daylight Wednesday, authorities said.
Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, said Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos.
The wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres,
Winfrey’s home survived the storm and slides. In an Instagram post she shared photos of the deep mud in her backyard and video of rescue helicopters hovering over her house.
“What a day!” Winfrey said. “Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara.”
A mud-caked 14-year-old girl was among the dozens rescued on the ground 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.
Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Twenty people were hospitalized and four were described as “severely critical” by Dr. Brett Wilson of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep, fire-scarred Santa Ynez Mountains. Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth doesn’t absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.
The torrent arrived suddenly and with a sound some likened to a freight train as water carrying rocks and trees washed away cars and trashed homes.
Thomas Tighe said he stepped outside his Montecito home in the middle of the night and heard “a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was ... boulders moving as the mud was rising.”
Two cars were missing from his driveway and he watched two others slowly move sideways down the middle of the street “in a river of mud.”
In daylight, Tighe was shocked to see a body pinned by muck against his neighbor’s home. He wasn’t sure who it was.
Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because of heavy rain in the 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 percent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.
U.S. 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 3:30 a.m. 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 moonlights as a news photographer for the local website Noozhawk. “Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants.”
Hartmann watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck.
“It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud,” he said.
Hartmann said he found a tennis trophy awarded in 1991 to a father-son team his wife knows.
“Both of them were caught in the flood. Son’s in the hospital, dad hasn’t been found yet,” he said, declining to name them.
The first confirmed death was Roy Rohter, a former real estate broker who founded St. Augustine Academy in Ventura. The Catholic school’s headmaster, Michael Van Hecke, announced the death and said Rohter’s wife was injured by the mudslide.
Montecito is beneath the scar left by a wildfire that erupted Dec. 4 and became the largest ever recorded in California. It spread over more than 440 square miles (1,140 square kilometers) and destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures. It continues to smolder deep in the wilderness.