17 dead in California mudslides, more than a dozen missing

Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed an estimated 100 houses, swept cars to the beach and left at least 17 victims dead.

More than 50 survivors had to be rescued by helicopter

A bulldozer clears mud off the road near a flooded section of a freeway in Montecito, Calif., on Tuesday. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in Southern California and killed more than a dozen people, police said. ( Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed an estimated 100 houses, swept cars to the beach and left at least 17 victims dead.

"It's just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven't heard from them — we have to find them," said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents' home was wrecked by the torrent of mud, trees and boulders that flowed down a fire-scarred mountain and slammed into the coastal town of Montecito in Santa Barbara County early Tuesday.

At least 15 people were killed and dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month. 2:41

The drenching storm that triggered the disaster gave way to sunny skies, as hundreds of searchers carefully combed a messy landscape strewn with hazards.

"We've gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud," said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief. "The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It's crusty on top but soft underneath, so we're having to be very careful."

Injuries from fast-moving debris

Buzzerio led a team of 14 firefighters and six dogs in deep debris. They used long-handled tools to search the muck in the painstaking task.

Teams rescued three people Wednesday, but they also discovered two more bodies, raising the death count to 17, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Seventeen people were reported missing.

Parents, 3 kids and 2 dogs rescued after mud devastates their home in Santa Barbara, Calif 0:45

A dozen people were hospitalized at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and four were in critical condition, Dr. Brett Wilson said.

"Most injuries we saw were related to fast-moving debris," Wilson said. "You can't even fathom what these poor patients went through to finally make their way to the emergency department."

500 firefighters

The deluge destroyed 100 houses and damaged 300 others, Santa Barbara County authorities said. Eight commercial properties were destroyed and 20 damaged.

Some 500 firefighters and other rescue workers were searching debris spread across a wide swath of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.

Helicopters were used to hoist more than 50 people to safety from roofs, where they scrambled to escape the mud or because debris had blocked roads and left them stranded.

At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued a family of five and their two dogs. Video shot from the hovering chopper showed a house surrounded by muck and debris as a mother, muddy from the waist down, handed her infant to two rescuers on the roof and then got help onto it. She and her newborn were hoisted to safety, followed by the rest of the family.

'That's their forever home'

Along Hot Springs Road, where at least two homes were carried off their foundations, bulldozers cleared muck and debris from areas already searched. Utility crews began the laborious task of repairing downed power lines and snapped telephone poles.

The cleanup was going on near where Weimer's missing parents, Jim and Alice Mitchell, lived. The couple, together for more than a half-century, didn't heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home Monday to celebrate Jim Mitchell's 89th birthday. She hoped to find them in a shelter or hospital.

"They're an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house. That's their forever home," Weimer said.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

'Evacuation fatigue'

"We totally thought we were out of the woods," said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. "I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, 'This is a million times worse than that fire ever was."'

Only an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

Marco Farrell, a real estate agent, cited "evacuation fatigue" as his reason not to leave — a decision he wouldn't make next time. He woke to the sound of pounding rain early Tuesday and went outside to investigate.

He was two blocks from home when he heard a rumble that he realized was the mudslide he feared.

Boulder plows through kitchen door

"I ran as fast I could and yelled, 'Flash flood!' as I passed neighbours' homes," he said.

Farrell warned his parents inside, and within a minute, a boulder plowed through the kitchen door. The mud flow went through the home and burst through a backdoor.

Firefighters successfully rescue a 14-year-old girl, right, after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home in Montecito on Tuesday. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. via Associated Press)

Farrell planned to float his elderly parents to a hillside on a surfboard, but it was unnecessary. The mud never got above their thighs and after about an hour of huddling in a hallway, he led his folks and dog outside where a passing firetruck took them to safety.

The flow was so powerful it swept several homes off their foundations, crushed others and wrapped cars around trees. At least two unrecognizably mangled cars were carried like driftwood all the way to the beach, where they were partly covered in seaweed.

A 48-kilometre stretch of U.S. Highway 101 linking Ventura and Santa Barbara was still covered in heavy debris and not expected to reopen until Monday. Because of the closure, boats were used to ferry some employees to Cottage hospital.

Another storm-related death was 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.

Mud and debris flow down a road due to heavy rain in Montecito on Tuesday. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. via Associated Press)