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Victim search expands in Santa Barbara as mudslides kill 17

Teresa Drenick stands in her sister’s Montecito home off Glen Oaks Lane on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 while some personal belongings are retrieved. Her sister has been missing since early Tuesday morning. Santa Barbara County Fire

Updated 6:28 p.m.

Evacuations | Road closures

A storm that slammed Santa Barbara County is over. The search for its victims is not.

At least 17 people were confirmed dead Wednesday, with 13 reported missing cases and possibly more, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Authorities in Montecito were still trying to reach new areas and dig into the destruction to find dead, injured or trapped people after a powerful mudflow swept away dozens of homes.

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 across 30 square miles that are affected.

"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.

About 100 homes were destroyed and 300 more damaged, Santa Barbara officials confirmed. Eight commercial properties were also destroyed.

One small fraction of the homes destroyed in the Montecito mudflow were at the corner of East Valley Road and Parra Grande Lane. About seven homes nearby appeared to have been destroyed. Neighbors said another three were swept completely away, leaving only a pancake-flat mud layer behind.

Montecito Creek carried a flood of water, mud, fire debris, ash and giant trees as it crashed down the mountainside. That debris scoured the river-stone sides of the creek and overflowed onto homes on both sides. The height of the water and mud could be seen in a mud line five feet high on one house that stood well above to a bridge where East Valley Road crosses the creek.

One of the destroyed homes belonged to a man who identified himself only as Larry. His grandfather, a stonemason and one of the original residents of Montecito’s Old Spanish Town, built the house in 1914. While Montecito is known for its wealthy residents, Larry said his and his neighbors’ now-destroyed homes were originally the homes of workers who tended the mansions of East Coast vacationers.

He plans to rebuild, “with these,” he said, holding up his two gloved hands. He thenhe noted tiny paw prints in the still-watery mud and said his cat, Little Boogers, went missing in the mudflow, and he hoped it survived.

Montecito architect Marc Phillips’ house survived, but his garage was inundated. He lives only two lots away from the creek. He said he felt his house was high enough above the creek that it would not sustain damage — however, the noise of the mudflow was terrifying.

“Somebody described it as a freight train, but to me, it was lots of freight trains all tied together. Hearing everything snap and break, it all just seemed to get louder,” Phillips said. “The way it sounded, I would definitely leave [before the next rainstorm]."

Outside the immediate debris zone, residents were coping with the cutoff of power, gas and water service. Montecito oncologist Dr. Robert Lum loaded case after case of water into the trunk of his car, because he said the local water utility had shut off service due to a damaged section of the system that was still buried under tons of mud. Lum said he expected to go a week without water service to his house.

Crews have been cleaning up roads in Burbank and Sun Valley that were blocked by Tuesday's mudslides. Things are slowly getting to normal for some residents.

Cleanup crews drove bulldozers and dump trucks through La Tuna Canyon Road, taking out massive amounts of debris in an effort to reopen the street to cars. With morning skies clear and sunny, residents were grabbing shovels and digging mud, gravel and large rocks out of their driveways.

Grace McKeehan had been able to get back to her home on foot after leaving early Tuesday morning. She said the past month has been nerve-racking.

“Between the fires — that was scary — and then anticipating this, this is a first," McKeehan said.

Although her driveway was a mess, McKeehan was glad to find her home undamaged. Clean up was taking longer further up La Tuna Canyon Road, where dozens of homes remained under evacuation.

Overall, at least 25 people were injured, while 50 or more had to be rescued by helicopters, authorities said. Four of the injured were reported in severely critical condition.

A storm-related death was also reported in Northern California, where a man was killed when his car was apparently struck by falling rocks in a landslide Tuesday evening in Napa County.

Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, said Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos.

At least 500 people are helping clean up, officials said. That number doesn't include utility crews working to restore power, water and gas to impacted areas.

The wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people east of Santa Barbara 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 our media partner NBC4 before she was taken away on a stretcher.

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.

Jonathan Reichlen witnessed the mudflows from his home in Toro Canyon.

He says he feels “very fortunate” that his house was not directly affected by the mudslides, although his access is currently cut off and he lacks water, electricity, gas and internet service.

He’s one of many who didn’t heed evacuation warnings.

“I chose to stay, knowing that I was out of the direct flow if there was going to be a mudslide,” he said.

Intense rain woke him at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. He looked outside and saw the entire sky lit up bright orange. Lightning, he thought, but later learned it was the gas line that had ruptured.

He said that at 3:55 a.m. he heard the roar of the hillside giving way.

“It sounded like a freight train was coming down the canyon,” he said. “If you had a twig that snapped right next your head, that was [the] trees that were snapping as the mud flow was coming down.”

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.

In Burbank, debris runoff damaged 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.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect there. 

The La Tuna Fire burned three homes and 7,000 acres in the Verdugo Hills.

KPCC reporter David Wagner was at the scene this morning where bulldozers worked to remove debris.  He said the scene looks much the same as it did last night. 

"There's still quite a bit of work to be done before residents are going to be able to get back to their homes," Wagner said.

He came across David Mutchler shoveling debris out of his driveway this morning. 

"We've had a lot of rain come down where it's taken a few garbage cans everynow and then, but this is the first time where I'm actually shoveling earth just to clear the driveway," Mutchler said. 



Los Angeles County:

  • Burbank -The mandatory evacuation for Country Club Drive is still in effect. This includes all residences east of Via Montana.

Ventura County:

  • All mandatory evacuations have been lifted

Santa Barbara County: 

Evacuation orders are in effect for the canyons of Dos Pueblos, Tecolote, Las Flores, Gato, Ecuestre and Quebrada. See map below.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff's have issued a Public Safety Exclusion Zone which means residents are not allowed to move about.  Anyone not sheltering in place is subject to arrest.

"Please stay out of this area so that rescuers can do their jobs," a news release said.

The boundaries are west of Sheffield Drive/East Valley Road/Ladera Lane, east of Olive Mill/Hot Springs Road, north of the ocean, and south of the U.S. Forest Service boundary. The area is outlined in black on the map below.

Evacuation Centers:

Los Angeles: Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 S Sepulveda Blvd, 90025; (310) 473-3610 (small pets accepted)

Los Angeles: Sun Valley Recreation Center, 8133 Vineland Ave. 91352; (818) 767-6151 (small pets accepted)

Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara City College, Sports Pavilion/Gymnasium

Duarte: Duarte City Hall Community Center, 1600 Huntington Dr. 91010

Ventura: Ventura City College (Small Gymnasium), 4667 Telegraph Rd. 93003

Burbank: McCambridge Recreation Center, 1515 N Glenoaks Blvd.

Santa Barbara County has also set up a a family assistance center at First Presbyterian Church at 21 E. Constance St to help residents looking for friends and family affected by the storm. It will be open until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, then from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday. 

For large animals:

Woodland Hills: Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave. 91371; (818) 719-6404
Santa Barbara: Earl Warren Showgrounds

For small animals:

Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Humane Society at 5399 Overpass Road


Road closures

Highway 101 is closed from Highway 150 in Ventura County to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara. Cal Trans expects to reopen the freeway Monday, January 15.

Los Angeles County:

  • Burbank:
    • 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

Ventura County:

The 101 Freeway was shut down:

  • Southbound 33 to Northbound 101 connector
  • Northbound at State Route 126
  • Northbound at Sea Cliff

Santa Barbara County:


Dalton reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers John Antczak, Michael Balsamo and Brian Melley in Los Angeles and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.