Seventeen people killed in the devastating mudslides were identified Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of rescue workers continued to search through mud and muck for any remaining victims.
Santa Barbara County released a list with the names of the dead, who ranged from ages 3 to 89. The cause of death was "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire," according to the Santa Barbara County Coroner's Office. As of Thursday afternoon, 43 people were considered missing, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.
The first winter storm of the year brought a deluge that overwhelmed communities near recent burn areas, particularly the wealthy enclave of Montecito, home of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. The heavy rain triggered flash flooding and mud and debris flows that killed 17 people and injured 28 more.
Former real estate broker Roy Rohter, 84, who founded St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was the first confirmed fatality.
Below are the names of the others:
- Jonathan Benitez - 10 years old
- Kailly Benitez - 3 years old
- Martin Cabrera-Munoz - 48 years old
- David Cantin - 49 years old
- Sawyer Corey - 12 years old
- Peter Fleurat - 73 years old
- Josephine Gower - 69 years old
- John McManigal - 61 years old
- Alice Mitchell - 78 years old
- James Mitchell - 89 years old
- Mark Montgomery - 54 years old
- Caroline Montgomery - 22 years old
- Marilyn Ramos - 27 years old
- Rebecca Riskin - 61 years old
- Peerawat Sutthithepn - 6 years old
- Richard Taylor - 67 years old
City and county fire officials told the AP that 64 homes were destroyed, down from an earlier estimate of 100 homes, and more than 400 damaged, though these numbers could vary as more information trickles in.
Work to clear several feet of mud on the 101 Freeway in Montecito slowed on Thursday because of the possibility that mud may contain human remains, authorities said.
“We still need to find out if there’s any remains or any life potential that’s left in there,” Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Anthony Buzzerio said. He was directing urban search and rescue team and working on a plan to find and preserve human remains — while keeping his crew safe.
“It’s inherently dangerous,” he said. “We don’t know what’s under there.”
The mud could be toxic from busted sewage lines. It could contain sharp and dangerous objects. The crews will use feeler poles, small boats and skip loaders to carefully search the debris field.
That search could take days.
Officials have been out warning residents since this past weekend that a potential catastrophic event could happen, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department Commander Rob Plastino told KPCC.
"And sadly, it did happen, and we've been in rescue mode ever since, just trying to help people," Plastino said.
Over the past two days, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and other first responders have been rescuing people out of their mud-surrounded homes and ferrying them to safety. Plastino said that they had just taken two women who needed medicine to the pharmacy to pick it up.
"Even the residents that didn't see their homes destroyed, and their lives torn apart, are still facing some significant challenges with water that is not potable — they had to boil their water. They're actually boiling pool water to survive," Plastino said.
One family that escaped from their home were Sally Barati, Shawn Babaieamin and their two children.
"We've been told that this was going to happen to us, but we got three feet of mud outside of our house — kind of blocked our gate and garage, so we couldn't do anything," Barati said.
They lost power Thursday and decided they couldn't stay at their home anymore, so a large emergency truck helped them to leave, taking the family out from the second floor window. They were dropped off at the local shopping center in Mendocino.
Aaron Berends runs the Vons store in Montecito, where he says neighbors have been arriving on foot or driven in on military trucks by the National Guard.
“A lot of the community that are all up here — they’re trying to make their way here. They’re having to hoof it,” Berends said.
It’s one of the only businesses in the area still open, and while the selection of steaks is not what it usually is, he said the store has received a few delivery trucks carrying essentials.
“I just got a truck through with a bunch of water that we intend to give to the community here,” Berends said.
Some of his employees haven’t been able to make it to work due to the road closures; others have lost homes and family members.
Berends is just glad the store can still welcome residents. People are able to pick up supplies and talk with their neighbors.
“Some of the customers are saying [this is] a little bit of normalcy,” he said.
A crew of 700 were on scene early Thursday helping with search, rescue and cleanup, hailing from a wide range of law enforcement, military and local organizations, including urban search and rescue, swift water rescue, sheriff and police personnel, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and utility company representatives, according to Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Fire Department.
Crews have worked day and night facing difficult conditions, digging through a thick sludge 15 feet deep or more, as well as downed trees, boulders, loose ground and even buried swimming pools, which can pose a threat to rescuers who can't see what's under their feet.
"It's unlike a flooding event or like where we have a river breach, where after the water leaves, we're able to search the area completely and thoroughly," Anderson told KPCC.
Search and cleanup efforts are expected to take days.
Montecito resident David Brown lives near Olive Mill Road in a condo inundated by mud. Luckily, he and his father live in units on the second and third floor, high enough to escape major damage.
“This is something that you would see in a disaster movie and never thought it would possibly happen in this area,” said Brown, who worried that any more rain might just send more mud tumbling down.
“The possibility is a scary thought,” Brown added.
Farther south in Los Angeles, crews managed to clear much of the debris from La Tuna Canyon Road, though 23 residences from the 8300 block to the 8800 block were still under evacuation to allow that work to continue. Fire officials said the road would remain closed to the 210 Freeway until debris removal was completed.
This story has been updated.