Thousands Evacuate Deadly California Mudslides

Jan 10, 2018
Originally published on January 10, 2018 8:11 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An evolving natural disaster has entered a new phase. First, wildfires stripped hillsides bare in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Then, rain fell on those hillsides. And then, the hillsides started moving. Mudslides and flash floods struck Montecito, Calif., and have now killed 13 people. Here's reporter Stephanie O'Neill.

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STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Helicopters scour the Santa Barbara County coastline, circling over the disaster zone in a search for survivors trapped in the deadly Montecito mudflow. Dramatic rescues, including that of a baby buried in the mud, punctuated a day that also saw a growing death toll and large-scale devastation. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown says knee-deep mud on roadways has slowed rescue efforts.

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BILL BROWN: It looked like a World War I battlefield. It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere with huge boulders, rocks, downed trees, power lines.

O'NEILL: Officials say the mud swept homes off their foundations, some of them with sleeping residents inside. As rescuers searched for victims, flash flood warnings sounded on cell phones throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Bill Pintard of nearby Carpentaria says even though his home wasn't in a mandatory evacuation zone, the flash flood alerts were worrisome.

BILL PINTARD: We live by a bunch of creeks on both sides, and so we were nervous. And I remember previous floods. And then I was here in 1969. I was a youngster then, and this all went then. And Highway 101 was closed, probably for a month.

O'NEILL: This time, too, mud and debris flows have forced the closure of Highway 101 in both directions for 30 miles. That left morning commuters like Jimmy Ventura, also of Carpenteria, searching for a way around so that he could get to work. He says one road with about a half foot of water seemed safe enough.

JIMMY VENTURA: I got about halfway through. And then all of a sudden, the creek started overflowing. And water started coming in the side of my window. My car stalled out twice. I finally got it to start. I turned around, and I got out.

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O'NEILL: Crews are working around the clock to clear the highway and surface streets. Stan Medel is a contractor for the California Department of Transportation. He says picking up the carpet of slushy mud and ash isn't easy.

STAN MEDEL: It's just so sludgy and soupy that it's just even hard to pick up and load into the trucks.

O'NEILL: Clearing the debris will be vital so that rescuers can get into areas of Montecito where people remain trapped.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Carpenteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAIT'S "SOLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.