Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

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Friday, January 12, 2018 11:40PM
Rescue crews continued to sludge through mud and debris Friday to search for missing people in Montecito after a deadly storm and flooding tore through Santa Barbara County.

MONTECITO, Calif. - Rescue crews continued to sludge through mud and debris Friday to search for missing people in Montecito after a deadly storm and flooding tore through Santa Barbara County.

Slowly but surely the floodwaters on the 101 Freeway began to recede. Workers used pumps and hoses while heavy equipment cleared away debris.

While the work continued, Montecito residents watched with frustration.

"It's like we're on an island. We can't get in, we can't get out unless you get escorted by the police," Montecito resident Matt McAllister said.

Residents were still in shock over the loss of life. The death toll went up to 18 Friday afternoon, and the number of missing people in Santa Barbara County was lowered to seven. Overall, 28 people were injured.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department created a page with the names, ages and photos of the missing people.

RELATED: Video shows before-and-after view of Montecito
Before-and-after look at destruction from mudslides in Montecito

The Santa Barbara County coroner's office on Thursday released the names of the deceased. All are residents of Montecito and range in age from 3 to 89.

More than 1,560 personnel were assigned to the search-and-rescue and cleanup efforts in an incident area that spanned 30 square miles. They were supported by K-9 units, 10 helicopters and six bulldozers.

After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 64 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 462.

Crews continue to clear out 101 Fwy in Montecito

Flooding and debris flow prompted the California Highway Patrol to shut down the northbound 101 Freeway at Route 126 in Ventura and at Seacliff, and the southbound 101 Freeway just south of Santa Barbara at Milpas Street to Padaro Lane near Summerland.

The closure was expected to last until Monday, but after reassessing the damage Friday afternoon, authorities could no longer provide a timeline for when the highway would reopen.

"It's just hard with getting some clear information. You talk to one cop, you get one piece of information, you talk to another, and you get another piece. I understand that no one really understands what's going on, but it's been really hard being here," resident Anais Berman said.

Neighborhoods were wiped out and roads strewn with massive boulders and trees.

A new mandatory evacuation order went into effect at 6 p.m. Thursday. The affected area was located west of Sheffield Drive, East Valley Road and Lader Lane; east of Olive Mill and Hot Springs Road, north of the ocean and south of U.S. Forest Service boundary. Residents will not be allowed to return to their homes while the evacuation order is lifted, which may not happen for one or two weeks, officials said.

For days, the county had issued repeated warnings via social media, news media and emails about the potential for mudslides. But county emergency manager Jeff Gater said officials decided not to use the cellphone push alert system until 3:50 a.m. Tuesday out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

The first slides ripped through Montecito about 3:30 a.m. and continued after the county cellphone alerts went out.

"It was activated at the appropriate time actually when the event was occurring," Brown said.

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

Montecito neighborhood filled with mud, boulders after storm

Kelly Weimer, whose parents were killed when their Montecito home was swept away by flash floods, said they "were in a voluntary evacuation area so they figured they were OK."

"They weren't concerned," Weimer said. "It's not like anybody came around and told them to leave."

Search-and-rescue teams admitted there is concern they could find more victims in the waters of the flooded 101 Freeway.

"They were digging in the Montecito Inn and down there in the parking lots yesterday, and I think there may have been some fatalities down there, I don't know. I know that there were some definitely laying on the road early on Monday morning before first responders got there. I saw several," McAllister added.

For workers trying to get the freeway reopened, the thought of victims buried in the muck casts a grim tone to an already dirty and difficult task.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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