Rescuers search for victims as California mudslide toll hits 15

A damaged house is surrounded by large boulders and debris following mudslides due to heavy rains in Montecito, California, in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 10, 2018. — Reuters pic
A damaged house is surrounded by large boulders and debris following mudslides due to heavy rains in Montecito, California, in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 10, 2018. — Reuters pic

MONTECITO, Jan 11 — Rescuers used dogs and helicopters to search for victims yesterday of powerful mudslides which left at least 15 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey.

Heavy rains on Tuesday sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month’s ferocious wildfires.

At least 25 people were injured, authorities said, while first responders were able to airlift around 50 residents and rescue dozens more from the ground.

The US Coast Guard released footage of a couple, their two young children and two dogs being plucked from their roof and hoisted up to a helicopter in baskets.

Yellow bulldozers were clearing the roads of tons of sticky brown mud in Montecito and other towns as utility workers restored downed power lines.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who has been touted this week as a possible 2020 candidate for the White House, was among those affected by the mudslides.

Winfrey posted a video of herself outside her Montecito mansion wading through near-knee deep mud.  

In some neighborhoods still bearing the scars of the Thomas Fire, houses were completely destroyed while others nearby were untouched.

“Part of the problem with this is the fire created a situation where the dirt was able to wash down,” said Richard Targonia, a resident of nearby Carpinteria.

“Had we still had all the vegetation on the hills it would not have been as much of an issue,” Targonia said.

“I have lived here my whole life,” said Melissa Ausanka-Crues, 29, a nurse. “My family has had a house here for 30 years and never seen something like this.”

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was another Montecito resident impacted by the storm.

DeGeneres posted a picture on Twitter of herself standing in mud next to a downed tree near her home.

“This is the street in front of our house,” she said.

“I don’t know anything about our house yet. I’m heartbroken for our community of Montecito.”

Amazed at the intensity

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told CBS’s This Morning that some residents had ignored evacuation orders.

“I think most people are really shocked at the extent of the damage and how big the impact was to the area,” Brown said.

“Although we knew this was coming, you couldn’t help but be amazed at the intensity of the storm and the result of the mudslide and the water that cascaded down the hills.”

Roads were clogged throughout the region with mudflows shutting down more than 50km of the 101 Freeway on Tuesday and knocking a number of homes from their foundations.

The highest rainfall total was recorded at 13cm in Ventura County, according to the National Weather Service.

Much of the affected area is land scorched by the massive Thomas fire several weeks ago, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history.

An evacuation order was issued in a section of the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, which was hit by a mudslide that pulled cars out of driveways and carried them downstream.

The slide also caused a “significant” gas leak, and repair efforts left homes on the street with no gas, electricity or water.

At Los Angeles International Airport, flooding forced the closure of the customs area in Terminal 2.

The rain was lighter in the desert than in coastal areas, but the downpour shattered a January 9 Palm Springs record of 1.13 inches set in 1980, according to the weather service.   

The rain had all but vanished by Tuesday evening, but mandatory evacuations were still in place across the region due to the threat of additional mudslides.   

The storm came after a 10-month dry spell following torrential rains in January and February of last year. — AFP

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