Difficult search goes on in California mudslides
MONTECITO, Calif. — Crews dug away at masses of mud, boulders and debris with earth-moving machines and shovels Saturday in a California town ravaged by mudslides, hoping to find seven people still missing in a disaster that has already claimed at least 18 lives.
The army of searchers and recovery workers in Montecito swelled to more than 2,000 five days after a powerful storm swept in from the Pacific and dumped a deluge on mountain slopes above the coastal enclave that were burned bare by a huge wildfire in December.
The backbreaking work went on under the sunny skies that have made the stretch of Santa Barbara County coast about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles a haven for the wealthy, celebrities and tourists drawn to its scenery and casual vibe.
“We have to do whatever it takes,” said Capt. Tom Henzgen, leader of a team from the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Long-range forecasts gave the crews about a week before the next chance of rain — and potential new mudslides — although the precipitation expected next Friday was expected to be disorganized and light. Another system was possible two days later.
Much of the community of about 9,000 remained under mandatory evacuation orders, even unscathed areas, as crews both removed debris and worked to restore water, sanitation, power and gas. All warnings and orders for neighboring Summerland and Carpinteria were lifted.
Tanker trucks sucked muddy water from flooded sections of U.S. 101, the only direct major artery between Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara region and an important route for many people who work in the Santa Barbara region but live down the coast in Ventura County.
The California Department of Transportation abandoned an estimate of reopening the highway on Monday and said it was not known when the closure would be lifted.
Amtrak, which began restoring rail service two days after the flood, was adding cars to trains because of heavy demand. Two boat companies that normally take tourists out to Channel Islands National Park and on whale-watching excursions were ferrying people between the Ventura and Santa Barbara harbors.
On land, local, state and federal agencies were conducting simultaneous recovery efforts, the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department said. That included clearing roads, drainage channels and debris basins that are intended to catch mudflows.
Emergency permits were obtained to dump up to 300,000 cubic yards (229,365 cubic meters) of sediment into the surf line on beaches in Goleta and Carpinteria.
The department said the sediment would only consist of wet or dry dirt or mud without rocks, debris or vegetation, and inspectors would refuse any truckload containing unpermitted materials. Occasional rocks would be set aside by hand for disposal.
Santa Barbara County said emergency permits don’t require testing of the material for hazards but that public health authorities were testing the ocean waters. Down the coast in Ventura County, environmental health officials warned that storm runoff can carry disease-causing bacteria and warned the public to avoid contact with ocean water until sampling results can be reviewed next week.
In the disaster impact zone, searchers used chain saws and rakes to remove logs and sift through the remnants of what was left of multimillion-dollar homes. Crews with backhoes and jackhammers pulverized enormous boulders that were left when the torrents stopped.
Orange markings left on doors indicated which homes had already been searched.
In one of the hardest hit areas, a silver Mercedes-Benz, its front and rear fenders completely destroyed, sat atop a tree stump, the only thing left where a home once sat.
Rescuers said they would search every piece of debris and pile of dirt to look for the missing.
Henzgen, the Los Angeles Fire Department captain, pointed to a nearly empty lot.
“This house is across the street now so we have to search these piles where people could’ve potentially floated into,” he said.
Each member of his team is given a section and must reduce any piles to ground level.
“We’re going to tear them apart piece by piece and search each pile thoroughly and make sure there’s nobody in there,” Henzgen said.
At a destroyed residence where mud-caked 14-year-old Lauren Cantin was rescued Tuesday hours after the early morning disaster hit, fire crews moved pieces of the roof, wood and concrete by hand as they looked for any sign of her missing 17-year-old brother.
The so-called Thomas fire, which led to the floods, was declared fully contained Friday. It erupted Dec. 4 in Ventura County and destroyed more than 1,000 structures as it swept through the city of Ventura and then threatened Carpinteria, Summerland and Santa Barbara. At 440 square miles, it became the largest wildfire in California records.