MONTECITO, Calif. — Rescue workers aided by heavy equipment began the long, slow slog on Friday of clearing a massive mudslide from this coastal town as they faced the breadth of the death and destruction.
Authorities say 18 people are confirmed dead and more than 40 are still missing after the mudslide early Tuesday that swept down the valley and across a major highway. The hillsides, bereft of trees and vegetation after last summer's Thomas Fire, could not contain the mud that formed after days of heavy rain.
Most of the residents of Montecito have evacuated. A huge police presence keeps out both residents and looters. Authorities say they need to limit people in the area so the backhoes and front-end loaders can continue digging out streets. Many streets near the downtown area remain impassible for vehicles with pools of liquid mud up to two feet deep. The highway, U.S. Highway 101, remains closed indefinitely.
Evacuee Hannah Troy has spent three days at the Red Cross shelter in nearby Santa Barbara. At least two of her family cars were destroyed and she’s not sure how her cottage fared. Still, surrounded by her dogs and donated clothing and food, Troy said she’s in no hurry to get back. Best to give workers a chance to clear the roads up, she said.
“I think I’d like to stay out of their way,” she said. Then she added, with a laugh, “that’s very unlike me.”
For others, the grim reality was just beginning as workmen dug through the debris.
“At this moment, we are still looking for live victims,” Santa Barbara Fire Capt. Gary Pitney said. But, he said, “The likelihood is increasing that we’ll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that.”
Of the 18 confirmed victims, the oldest was Jim Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before the mudslide. He died with his wife of more than 50 years, Alice.
The youngest, 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, was one of four children killed.
Southern California mudslides claim at least 6 lives
The other children killed were 6-year-old Peerawat Sutthithepn, 10-year-old Jonathan Benitez and 12-year-old Sawyer Corey. None of the adult dead shared their last names.
All of the dead were killed by “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides,” authorities said.
Sheriff Bill Brown cautioned Thursday that many or most of those unaccounted for may simply have been unreachable to the family and friends who reported them missing.
“We were able to find people,” Anderson said, but added that the number could continue to fluctuate greatly. She said some missing-person reports are quickly cleared but others take time to resolve.
The damage above Montecito isn’t absolute. Some streets suffered no damage. Other streets became rivers as the mud filled homes, blasted cars from garages, tore down trees and tumbled boulders like Legos.
Marveling at the scale of destruction, several firefighters wondered aloud how some areas would ever get back to normal because there’s just so much mud covering the ground, never mind the damage to homes and other buildings.
The searches themselves are slow, largely because the mud is so hard to walk through and hides myriad dangers. In one upscale neighborhood, firefighters warned each other of below-ground pools, which have turned into watery traps for the unwary.
A few streets away, Abbe and Gary Shaw counted their blessings. Their home of more than 30 years was untouched by the torrents of mud and water. Like many, the couple described hearing explosions during the slide as gas lines ruptured and exploded.
Now, three days in to a mandatory evacuation order they decided to ignore, the Shaws said they’re determined to ride out what could be a multi-week closure. They’ve got power back, limited cell phone service and food for their six dogs and 20 chickens. While they count Oprah and Ellen as neighbors, they lamented the losses suffered by those who can ill afford it.
Friday morning, the couple walked down to a security checkpoint near their home to get an update from the California Highway Patrol officer stationed there. They came away shaken after seeing pictures of the flooded Highway 101 and the devastation to downtown Montecito, where they had a veterinary clinic for many years.
“If I’d have known how bad it was, we might have been scared,” Abbe Shaw said. “But they’re talking two weeks of closure. What would we have done with the animals?”
Like several other area residents, Gary Shaw said he was frustrated government officials failed to quickly stabilize the hillside following the Thomas Fire. The mudslides began raindrops on top of hillsides in the Los Padres National Forest and then gained momentum as they tore downhill through the neighborhoods, picking up ash, dirt and debris along the way.
“We’ll just be here,” Abbe Shaw said as she walked back to their house. “We’ve got all those chickens, which means we’ve got eggs, and they’re perfect.”
Interjected her husband with a smile: “And if it gets bad, we’ve got all those chickens.”
Contributing: Associated Press