Frustration mounts for mudslide-ravaged California town known for luxury and calm

Frustrations and dark discoveries mounted for Montecito, a California town known for luxury and serenity but ravaged by a destructive mudslide that has left at least 19 people dead.

Most Montecito residents ordered to stay away as gas, power expected to be cut off for repairs

Firefighters search homes damaged by deadly rain and mudflow in Montecito, Calif., on Friday. Dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged and several people were killed Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by the gigantic Thomas wildfire in Southern California last month. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Associated Press)

Frustrations and dark discoveries mounted Saturday for a California town ravaged by a deadly and destructive mudslide.

Most of the people of Montecito, which has a population of about 9,000 and is usually known for its serenity and luxury, were under orders to stay out of town as gas and power were expected to be shut off Saturday for repairs.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown on Thursday expanded what was known as the public safety exclusion zone to incorporate most of the town. That meant even those who had stayed behind would have to leave and those who entered the zone would be subject to arrest.

Dramatic video shows floodwaters hitting Montecito, Calif.

6 years ago
Duration 1:06
California mudslides have caused multiple deaths, wide destruction

"It is a little frustrating," said Sarah Ettman, whose home was undamaged and whose section of town still had gas and electricity. "It's martial law here, basically."

However, with most utilities about to be cut off and sewage running into the nearby creek, she decided to heed the order to leave.

"I mean you're losing all your basic health and sanitation services," she said. "When those go down, you have to leave."

An aerial view of Montecito, where hundreds of houses were damaged. (Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Associated Press)

It was another difficult turn for those living in the Southern California town that has been subject to repeated evacuation orders in recent weeks, first because of a monster wildfire last month, then because of downpours and mudslides.

Cia Monroe said her family was lucky their home wasn't ruined and they were all healthy and safe, though her daughter lost one of her best friends.

But Monroe said it was stressful after evacuating three times during the wildfire to be packing up a fourth time. A family had offered them a room to stay overnight, but then they were looking at spending up to $3,000 a week for a hotel.

"Where do you go when you're a family of four and you don't have a second house?" Monroe asked, noting that some residents have third and fourth homes. "Financially that's a burden."
An Orange County urban search and rescue team takes a break on the roof a house in Montecito. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While Montecito is best known as a getaway for the rich and famous -- the median home price among current listings is more than $4 million US — there are also working families living in modest houses and apartments.

More than 2,000 workers taking part in the search and cleanup effort flooded into the town.

A search and rescue dog is guided through properties after the mudslide hit Montecito. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

A backhoe scooped up mud and rocks around buckled and flattened homes, while bulldozers cleared roads of tangled trees, muck and boulders. Tanker trucks were being used to haul off floodwaters sucked up from U.S. Highway 101, the crippled coastal route connecting Santa Barbara to Ventura.

Brown said the recovery effort has been hindered by residents who had stayed behind or tried to check on damage in neighbourhoods where homes were levelled and car-size boulders blocked roads and littered properties.

Rescuers were busy probing thick muck, swollen creeks and tangled trees with poles in search of seven missing people while dogs sniffed for bodies.

A crew found the body of the 18th victim, Joseph Bleckel, 87, before noon in his home near Romero Canyon, Brown said. It was the first death discovered since Wednesday. 

The cause of Bleckel's death wasn't announced, but all other victims died from multiple traumatic injuries due to a flash flood and mudslides.

Later Saturday, Brown said a 19th victim had been found and named her as Morgan Corey, 25. Her 12-year-old sister Sawyer had previously been discovered dead after their home was swept away this week.

Another person who had been on the list of missing, 62-year-old Delbert Weltzin, was found alive and well, Brown said without elaborating on the circumstances.

The list of five remaining missing people includes Fabiola Benitez, the mother of Jonathan Benitez, a 10-year-old killed in the flooding.

Benitez lived with her sister-in-law, Marilyn Ramos, 27, who was asleep with her daughter, Kaelly, 3, when mud crashed through their Montecito rental home, carrying both to their deaths.

A firefighter searches for people trapped in mudslide debris Wednesday in Montecito. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"My sister was such a good person, she only thought of others to the point that she would cry with you when you were hurt or sick," said Ramos's sister, Jennifer Ramos, pausing to sob for several seconds.

The husbands of both women and the two-year-old son of Fabiola Benitez were hospitalized with injuries, Ramos said.

Drenching rains that unleashed the deadly torrents managed to finally contain the largest wildfire in state history, which burned for weeks above Montecito and stripped the steep hills of vegetation, making it prone to mudslides. The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that the fire that burned 1,140 square kilometres was fully contained.

In related news, the San Ysidro Ranch, a five-star resort near Santa Barbara that sits in Montecito foothills, and is where President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned, has been severely damaged by the mudslides.

Officials have yet to fully assess the damage at the ranch, which sits on 202 hectares in the foothills of the Los Padres 
National Forest.

"It looks like a war zone. It looks like the place just got bombed," U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal, a Democrat 
representing Santa Barbara County, told Reuters while visiting the site on Friday.
In this Feb. 28, 2015, photo, Samantha Becker walks to her wedding ceremony on the grounds of San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. The five-star resort, which hosts weddings and is a popular honeymoon destination, was damaged in the mudslides. (The Associated Press)

The resort was not accepting reservations until at least August, according to Cheyanna Rudd, a booking agent for an outside company used by San Ysidro, but Maxine Rutledge, the resort manager, disputed the timeline.

She declined to provide further details on when the property would reopen, and said owner Ty Warner, the Beanie Babies billionaire who bought the place in 2000, did not have an immediate comment.

Franciscan monks also stayed on the property in the late 1700s and it served as a citrus ranch in the 1800s before opening to guests in 1893, according to a history on the ranch's website.

The Academy Awarding-winning actor Ronald Colman took over the ranch in the 1930s and it became a haunt of Hollywood stars from Audrey Hepburn to Groucho Marx.

Actors Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married there and John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there before he became U.S. president.


With files from Reuters