Saturday 7 December 2019

Search for mudslide missing in California continues as death toll rises to 18

Emergency crew members search an area damaged by storms in Montecito, California (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Emergency crew members search an area damaged by storms in Montecito, California (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Newsdesk Newsdesk

Residents of a town ravaged by mudslides in southern California have been ordered to leave while rescuers continue their efforts to find five missing people as the death toll rose to 18.

The search for victims of the disaster has carried on in Montecito, where crews are labouring to repair power, water and gas lines as well as clean up massive debris.

More than 1,200 workers have been deployed in the town of about 9,000 residents for the search and cleanup effort.

Firefighters and utility crews have been working with chain saws and jackhammers, while heavy machinery was used to scoop up mud and rocks around buckled and flattened homes.

Bulldozers have been used to clear roads of tangled trees, muck and boulders as trucks hauled off floodwaters siphoned off US Highway 101, the crippled coastal route connecting Santa Barbara to Ventura.

Those who did not lose their homes have been told to leave for up to two weeks so they will not interfere with the rescue and recovery operation.

It was another frustrating turn for those living in the town that has been subject to repeated evacuation orders in recent weeks, first because of a monster wildfire last month, then because of downpours and mudslides.

Montecito is best known as a getaway for the rich and famous - the median home price among current listings is more than 4 million dollars (£2.9m) - although there are also working families living in modest houses and apartments.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said residents who had stayed behind or tried to check on damage in neighbourhoods had hindered the recovery effort.

Teams discovered the 18th victim, Joseph Bleckel, 87, in his home near Romero Canyon before noon, Mr Brown said.

The cause of Mr Bleckel's death wasn't announced, but all other victims died from multiple traumatic injuries due to a flash flood and mudslides.

Mr Brown also named the five people still missing, which included Fabiola Benitez, the mother of Jonathan Benitez, a 10-year-old killed in the flooding.

Ms Benitez lived with her sister-in-law, Marilyn Ramos, 27, who was asleep with her daughter, Kaelly, 3, when mud crashed through their Montecito rental home, carrying both to their deaths.

"My sister was such a good person, she only thought of others to the point that she would cry with you when you were hurt or sick," said Ramos' sister, Jennifer Ramos.

On Thursday, Mr Brown expanded what was known as the public safety exclusion zone to incorporate most of the town.

That meant that even those who had stayed behind would have to leave and those who entered the zone would be subject to arrest.

Residents who remained in town on Friday were either seen packing up their cars with clothing and other belongings for their latest evacuation or staying out of sight.

Rescue crews were busy sticking poles into thick muck, swollen creeks and tangled trees in search of five missing people while dogs sniffed for bodies.

The drenching rains that unleashed the deadly torrents managed to finally contain the largest wildfire in state history, which burned for weeks above Montecito and stripped the steep hills of vegetation, making it prone to mudslides.

The US Forest Service announced on Friday that the fire that burned 440 square miles had been fully contained.

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