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4 still missing in Montecito as search and rescue ends, recovery begins

Parishioners prayed Sunday for those killed and for families still searching for missing relatives in a Southern California community ravaged by mudslides, and authorities announced another body had been found, increasing the death toll to 20.

20 people died in mudslides that devastated an entire community near Los Angeles

More than 2,000 searchers have helped with the back-breaking work of searching for and rescuing people in Montecito, Calif., following devastating mudslides there. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

Parishioners prayed Sunday for those killed and for families still searching for missing relatives in a Southern California community ravaged by mudslides, and authorities announced another body had been found, increasing the death toll to 20.

The body of 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa was discovered Saturday afternoon. His two-year-old daughter, Lydia, remained missing. His six-year-old son, Peerawat, nicknamed Pasta, and his 79-year-old father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor, also were killed in the mudslides.

A sign is placed on a fence in the town Montecito, usually known for its serenity and now ravaged after flash floods cascading through mountain slopes sent fast-moving masses of mud, boulders and toppled trees into the town. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

"This family is one of several that lost multiple family members," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. "And we know that the suffering of those who knew and loved all of the victims is immense."

The list of those still missing in the mudslides has shrunk to four.

Community mourns 20 people

Because most churches in Montecito are in an evacuation area, many worshippers attended services in nearby towns. At a church in Santa Barbara, Calif., they carried flowers, lit candles and prayed for the families who have lost loved ones. The victims were their friends and neighbours, they said.

"Our whole community is devastated," Hannah Miller said at the Trinity Episcopal Church. "There isn't anyone who doesn't know someone who has been affected by this disaster. It is truly awful. We can just pray they find those poor missing people."

In the disaster area, firefighters went door to door to check the structural stability of the houses damaged by a powerful rainstorm that preceded the mudslides and scoured what's left of toppled homes and mangled cars as they searched for the missing.

Search and rescue operations ended Sunday and authorities transitioned to a search and recovery phase, Brown announced. The move allows officials to release resources that are no longer needed and allow search operations to slow to a safer pace, he said.

The storm sent flash floods cascading through mountain slopes that were burned bare by a huge wildfire in December. Workers used backhoes, jackhammers and chainsaws to clear away masses of mud, boulders and toppled trees.

Crews prepare for more rain

Crews have made it a priority to clear out debris basins and creek canals before another rainstorm. Long-range forecasts gave the crews about a week before the next chance of rain — and potential new mudslides — although the precipitation was expected to be disorganized and light. Another system was possible two days later.

Crews work on clearing Highway 101 Saturday in the aftermath of a mudslide in Montecito, Calif. Most of the people of Montecito were under orders to stay out of town as gas and power were expected to be shut off Saturday for repairs. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The mudslides on Jan. 9 ravaged the community, destroying at least 65 homes and damaging more than 460 others, officials said. They also forced the indefinite shutdown of Highway 101, the only major car route between Santa Barbara and points east.

The rest of the community's infrastructure also was damaged. Some streets were cracked in half, and authorities closed bridges and overpasses because they were unstable. Amtrak said it was adding rail cars to each of its five daily round-trip trains between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to accommodate commuters grappling with the ongoing closure of the highway.

Candlelight vigil planned

A candlelight vigil for the victims and an interfaith service were planned for Sunday evening at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden.

Sutthithepa, whose body was discovered Saturday, immigrated from Thailand, leaving behind his wife and two children but sending them money for years until he could bring them to the United States, a friend, Poy Sayavongs, told the Lee Central Coast News.

"They finally were able to make it to the states in the summer of 2016," Sayavongs said. "It's cruel — they only had a short time together before this tragedy struck."

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office shows Pinit Sutthithepa with one of his children. The body of Sutthithepa, 30, was discovered Saturday. His daughter Lydia, 2, was still missing Sunday. His son, Peerawat, 6, and his father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor, 79, were killed in the mudslides. (The Associated Press)

A month earlier, the family had evacuated to a Red Cross shelter for a night as a devastating wildfire that went on to blacken nearby mountains threatened their home and many others.

More than 2,000 searchers and recovery workers have remained in the community, carrying out back-breaking work in the summer-like weather that has made the stretch of Santa Barbara County coast about 145 kilometres northwest of Los Angeles a haven for the wealthy, celebrities and tourists.

Area still evacuated

Much of the community of about 9,000 residents remained under mandatory evacuation orders, even unscathed areas, as crews removed debris and worked to restore water, sanitation, power and gas. There was no timeline for allowing residents to return, Assemblywoman Monique Limon said.

Limon, a Democrat, said she's working with other legislators to address concerns about flood and fire insurance and issues with emergency cellphone alerts.