Thursday 13 December 2018

Rescue teams continue search for US town mudslide victims

This aerial photo shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito (Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP)
This aerial photo shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito (Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP)

Hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies as the search dragged on for victims of mudslides which engulfed a Californian town.

Seventeen people were confirmed dead and eight others were still missing in Montecito, officials said.

Santa Barbara County authorities sent a shudder through the community early on Thursday when they reported the number of people unaccounted for had surged from 16 to 48.

However, later in the morning they said they had made a clerical error and the actual number of missing was down to eight.

As search dogs clambered on heaps of wood that used to be homes, mud-spattered rescue teams from all over California worked their way through the ruins of Montecito, an enclave of 9,000 people north-west of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

It was left covered with thick muck, boulders, wrecked cars, splintered lumber and tree limbs in a scene Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown likened to a First World War battlefield.

After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 59 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 446.

Overall, 28 people were injured. Twelve remained hospitalised, four in critical condition.

By Wednesday, some 500 searchers had covered about 75% of the inundated area, authorities said. They had a long slog ahead, filled with hazards seen and unseen.

"A lot of the street signs are gone, the roads are impassable. It all has to be done on foot," said Deputy Dan Page, chief of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department rescue team.

Rescue crews worked up to 12 hours a day and risked stepping on nails or shattered glass, or being exposed to raw sewage, or dealing with leaking gas, Mr Page said.

"We've gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud," said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief.

Crews marked where bodies were found, often far away from a home, and used that information to guess where other victims might have ended up as the surging mud carried or buried them.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

The mudslides were already occurring when Santa Barbara County officials first sent emergency alerts to mobile phones in the area, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday.

For days, the county had issued repeated warnings via social media, news media and emails about the potential for mudslides.

However, county emergency manager Jeff Gater said officials decided not to use the mobile phone push alert system until 3.50am on Tuesday out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

Only an estimated 10% to 15% of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.


Press Association

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