15 killed as huge mudslides engulf celebrity haven
Girl (14) is pulled out alive after rescuers hear her cries
The number of people killed by mudslides in California has risen to 15, but there was a glimmer of hope among the tragedy after a teenage girl was pulled from the debris alive in a dramatic rescue yesterday.
Firefighters were able to free 14-year-old Lauren Cantin from the ruins of her Montecito home after six hours chopping away rubble using 'jaws of life' equipment and other tools.
She was found alive after firefighters with rescue dogs heard her cries for help.
"I thought I was dead there for a minute," Lauren, covered in mud, said after workers spent six hours rescuing her. She was able to stand up and walk with assistance.
"To be able to have her come out safely and as unscathed as she was, it was pretty phenomenal," said Andy Rupp, a Montecito fire protection district firefighter.
Rescue efforts were expected to become easier after a powerful rain storm headed west and skies cleared, authorities said.
Rescuers continued searching for victims in Santa Barbara County, where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles the previous day when more than 1.5cm of rain fell in five minutes, far exceeding the normal flash flood threshold.
"While we hope it will not, we expect this number [of fatalities] to increase as we continue to look for people who are missing and unaccounted for," Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said of the death toll.
The upmarket communities of Montecito and Carpenteria, just outside Santa Barbara, were hardest hit. Montecito is a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people north-west of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.
In the past month, California's scenic coastline was ravaged by a series of intense wildfires that burned off vegetation.
Emergency workers used search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, about 180km north of Los Angeles.
About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the US Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out.
Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after 7,000 residents in Santa Barbara County were ordered to evacuate and another 23,000 were urged to do so voluntarily, some of them for a second time since December.
The county set up an evacuation shelter, where people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.
Fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide in January 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 32km south of the latest disaster.
December's wildfires, the largest in state history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold soil in place and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.
Some residents had fled their homes due to the fires and again this week because of the rains.
"I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was boulders moving as the mud was rising," said Thomas Tighe, who discovered two of his cars missing from the driveway. "I saw two other vehicles moving slowly sideways down the middle of the street in a river of mud."
Marshall Miller, who evacuated his home in Montecito with his family, returned to check for damage and found his neighbourhood devastated. He never reached his home because two neighbours, an elderly woman and her daughter, needed a lift to the hospital after being rescued.
The pair had left their house before it was submerged under 1.8m of mud, but had become trapped outside in the deep muck.
"It was sobering," Mr Miller said. "I saw them covered in mud and shaking from the cold."
The path of the deluge was graphically illustrated on the side of a white colonial-style house, where a dark gray stain created a wavy pattern halfway up the front windows.
The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3.30am local time.
Montecito was inundated with more than half an inch in five minutes, while Carpinteria received nearly an inch in 15 minutes.
"All hell broke loose," said Peter Hartmann, a dentist who also moonlights as a news photographer. "There were gas mains that had popped, where you could hear the hissing.
"High-voltage power lines were down, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants."
Mr Hartmann watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck.
"It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud," he said. "It was scary."
© Daily Telegraph, London and agencies