LOS ANGELES: The death toll from devastating mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm in southern California rose to 15 Wednesday as rescuers scoured the debris of demolished homes for survivors and bodies.
Between 12 and 24 people who were believed to in the area at the time of the slides remained unaccounted for, said Chris Elms, a spokesman for state firefighters. About 500 law enforcement officers and firefighters were combing mud-covered neighborhoods, using dogs, helicopters and thermal imaging equipment to locate missing people.
A rainstorm sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into the affluent Santa Barbara County community of Montecito early Tuesday — ravaging swaths of land scorched by the Thomas fire last month.
Floodwater overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above the town of 9,000, northwest of Los Angeles, bursting the banks of a creek and sending massive rocks rolling into homes, according to emergency services.
“The sheriff’s office can confirm 15 fatalities but is not able to provide additional details at this time,” a spokesman for the county department said on its Twitter feed.
At least 25 other people were injured, authorities said, while first responders were able to airlift around 50 residents and rescue dozens more from the ground. About 300 people were also stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the US Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.
“Currently we are working to identify people who might still be trapped and isolated in areas that we have not been able to gain complete access to,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told CBS’s “This Morning.”
“We worked through the night and I’m happy to say we managed to get to some folk trapped in homes but otherwise safe.”
He said that there was no way of telling how many people were still trapped, adding that some people had ignored evacuation orders.
“I think most people are shocked at the extent of the damage and how big the impact was to the area. Although we knew this was coming, you couldn’t help but be amazed at the intensity of the storm and the result of the mudslide and the water that cascaded down the hills.”
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department said on its Twitter feed Tuesday it was using dogs to look for victims where multiple homes once stood in Montecito following the heavy rain.
Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.
The department posted pictures of rivers of mud flowing through neighborhoods, with homes collapsed, cars smashed up and turned onto their roofs and roads rendered impassible by fallen trees.
Roads were clogged throughout the region with mudflows shutting down more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) of the 101 Freeway on Tuesday and knocking a number of homes from their foundations.
Mudslides damaged historic hotels and the homes of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, who relish the area sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, for its natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.
Winfrey posted a video on Instagram showing her wading through nearly knee-deep mud on her Montecito property.
“The house in back is gone,” she could be heard saying as she inspected the damage.
Television personality Ellen DeGeneres, who owns a home in the upscale Montecito community, posted a photo on Twitter of a roadway choked with mud and brown water.
“This is not a river,” DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “This is the 101 freeway in my neighborhood right now. Montecito needs your love and support.”
This is not a river. This is the 101 freeway in my neighborhood right now. Montecito needs your love and support. pic.twitter.com/jRNCBrp4b5
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) January 9, 2018
This is the street in front of our house. I don’t know anything about our house yet. I’m heartbroken for our community of Montecito. I’m devastated for the families who lost loved ones. I’m grateful to all the rescue workers. Please send love to Montecito. pic.twitter.com/TmbqwzMLEz
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) January 10, 2018
The highest rainfall total was recorded at five inches (13 centimeters) in Ventura County, according to the National Weather Service Los Angeles.
Much of the affected area is land scorched by the massive Thomas fire several weeks ago, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, where there is no vegetation to soak up the excess water.
A evacuation order was issued in a section of the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, which was hit by a mudslide that pulled cars out of driveways and carried them downstream.
The slide also caused a “significant” gas leak, and repair efforts left homes on the street with no gas, electricity or water.
“There were many homes, about 40 to 45 homes, affected by it, a couple homes damaged,” Burbank Fire Department Battalion Chief John Owings told local TV news channel KCAL9.
“We performed two physical rescues at approximately 7 o’clock this morning.”
At Los Angeles International Airport, flooding forced the closure of the customs area in Terminal 2.
The rain was lighter in the desert than in coastal areas, but the downpour shattered a January 9 Palm Springs record of 1.13 inches set in 1980, according to the weather service.
The rain had all but vanished by Tuesday evening, but mandatory evacuations were still in place across the region due to the threat of additional mudslides.
“Any additional rain is going to push more mud down,” Owings said.
The storm came after a 10-month dry spell following torrential rains in January and February of last year.