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At least 15 people were killed and 25 were injured in Santa Barbara County as Southern California's first winter storm swept through the region on Tuesday. The heavy rains triggered mudslides that swept several homes from their foundations.
Santa Barbara County Officials said at an afternoon news conference that about 7,000 people live in the mandatory evacuation zone, and about 23,000 people live in the voluntary evacuation zone. Officials could not confirm where in the county the deaths and injuries had occurred, nor how many people remained missing. However, at least six people were killed in the Montecito area, Santa Barbara County fire officials said earlier in the day.
First responders were aware of approximately 300 people trapped in Romero Canyon, according to officials.
Residents were unaccounted for in neighborhoods hard to reach because of downed trees and power lines, Santa Barbara County Fire Department Capt. Dave Zaniboni told the Associated Press, which reported that there was a "backlog of scores of callers requesting help."
Between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, dispatchers received more than 600 calls for help, officials said at the afternoon news conference. Fifty people had been hoisted to safety, and "dozens more" were rescued from the ground, officials said.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Mike Eliason tweeted that the 300 block of Hot Springs Road was badly hit by mudslides. That area was not under mandatory evacuation orders, but voluntary ones, according to a map and press release circulated by the County of Santa Barbara.
Remembering the victims
Among those killed in Montecito Tuesday morning was Roy Rohter, 84, who started a small Catholic school in Ventura.
A mudslide swept the 84-year-old Rohter, as well as his wife Theresa, from their home. Theresa was rescued and was hospitalized in stable condition, according to a post on the website of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, which described the couple as “longtime friends and benefactors of the school.”
Rohter, who served in the Army and was a real estate broker, founded St. Augustine Academy in 1994, according to the school’s headmaster Michael Van Hecke. Rohter started the school because he couldn't find a school in either Santa Barbara or Ventura counties offering a “classical education” — a model Van Hecke described as based in the liberal arts.
“He never ever stopped thinking, or caring, or wondering,” Van Hecke said.
During the Thomas Fire, Van Hecke took both Rohter and his wife into his home for more than a week because evacuations displaced the Rohters from their home.
“He’s about the best man I know,” Van Hecke said, "but he would be the first to say, ‘Pray for me. Pray for my soul.’”
In Burbank, the Deer Canyon basin overflowed, according to an update from city officials. The Upper Sunset Debris basin above Country Club Drive also overflowed Tuesday afternoon, Kerjon Lee with Los Angeles County Public Works said.
Media partner NBC L.A. captured footage of the resulting mudslides:
According to Lee, the Upper Sunset Debris Basin is under construction to increase its storage capacity. Lee said the resulting flows of water, mud and debris were an overflow, and not the result of a compromised structure.
"The side walls had been elevated by the contractor, but the center spillway portion of the facility had not been raised, yet. During the storm, a portion of exposed rebar from the ongoing construction activity remained visible and, to an untrained eye, it may have appeared that the center portion of the dam had been breached. However, that was not the case," L.A. County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella said in a statement.
Burbank resident Sean Johnston woke up Tuesday to find a layer of silt in the garage of his home on Country Club Drive. The signs of a mudslide that had flowed through the neighborhood, filling it with debris, were all around.
"I lost a mailbox that just completely sheared on off," Johnston said.
Soon, he got a knock on his door. Officials were ordering mandatory evacuations for the area. He was getting ready to go when he looked up the hill — a new river of mud was flowing down his street.
"It took all of five minutes from the time I got the notice and when I was done packing my bags. The street was completely flooded. So I couldn’t get out," Johnston said.
After the flow slowed, Johnston left on foot — wearing a garbage bag around his legs as he trudged down. He planned to spend the night in a hotel room, get a rental car and go to work like any other day, hoping his home wouldn’t sustain any more damage.
Burbank Police Department public information officer Derek Green said, because of the damage from the areas burned in recent fires, the runoff was more than normal.
Debris runoff in Burbank also caused damage to a gas line and broke a fire hydrant. The storms also caused a three-quarter-inch gas leak to a line on Country Club Drive. As a result, residents on that road do not have utilities, according to an update from Burbank city officials.
Rescue crews used helicopters to lift people to safety because of blocked roads, and firefighters slogged through waist-high muck to pull a muddy 14-year-old girl out of the rubble of a home in Montecito. She was taken away on a stretcher.
Officials said they would declare a "rescue zone," and if unauthorized people go to that zone "willfully and knowingly," that they would be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Officials were unable to provide a number of structures damaged in Santa Barbara County, saying they were focusing their efforts on search and rescue.
As a result of the flash floods, the Montecito area is currently under a boil water notice. Residents are being advised to drink and cook with either bottled water or boiled tap water.
The work throughout SoCal
Around greater Los Angeles, crews worked to clear debris from roads, including a key stretch of U.S. 101 that was shut down along the border of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. That's where thousands of residents evacuated Monday over fears of destructive mudslides in areas where the Thomas Fire, the state's largest-ever, raged last month.
Work crews also labored through the morning to clear mud from about a two-mile section of La Tuna Canyon Road west of the 210 freeway offramp at La Tuna. Though, by noon, rain resumed and much of the work was undone by new mudflows that blocked the road again.
At 11:30 a.m. a city emergency alert was sent to the area to evacuate due to the flash flooding hazard, and just before noon — less than half an hour after the alert — a wave of water, mud and boulders barreled down the La Tuna Canyon Wash.
The 101 Freeway southbound was shut down at Milpas.
Los Angeles County:
- Royal Oaks and Greenbank
- Bettyhill and Conata
- Royal Oaks and Mel Canyon
- eastbound/westbound Fish Canyon at Mel Canyon
- Mountaincrest and Deerlane
- Brookridge and Tannencrest
- Topanga Canyon
- Country Club Drive at Via Montana
Burbank residents are also being asked to avoid:
- Walnut Avenue at Sunset Canyon
- Harvard Road at Sunset Canyon
- The Stough Nature Center
- The Wildwood Canyon recreation area
Cities of Monrovia, Arcadia, and Sierra Madre:
- Santa Anita Canyon, from Arno Drive to Chantry Flat Road is closed due to rock slides
Lancaster and Roosevelt:
- Avenue J, from 70th Street East to 90th Street East
There is also limited access and delays expected in the following areas of Angeles National Forest, according to the LA County Department of Public Works:
- Big Pines Highway, two miles west of Angeles Crest Highway to Angeles Crest Highway
- Table Mountain Road, from Angeles Crest Highway to one mile north of Angeles Crest Highway
Evacuation orders for the Kagel Canyon, Lopez Canyon, and Little Tujunga Canyon areas were lifted at 10 a.m., according to the LA County Sheriff's Department.
The 101 Freeway northbound was shut down:
- At State Route 126
- At Sea Cliff
- Valley View Elementary School, 237 Mel Canyon Rd. (Duarte)
- Vinedale Elementary School students advised to report to Glenwood Elementary, 8001 Ledge Ave, due to road closures (Los Angeles Unified)
- DeAnza Middle School (Ventura)
Associated Press reporter Andrew Dalton contributed to this report, along with AP writers Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles, Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, and Eric Risberg in Santa Rosa.
This story has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that a Burbank debris basin had broken, but it was actually under construction and not yet complete. KPCC regrets the error.