The search for survivors and bodies after a devastating mudslide engulfed homes in Santa Barbara County has entered its third day. Seventeen people, aged from 3 to 89, have been confirmed dead, with another 43 still unaccounted for.
Some 700 rescue workers are involved in the search, digging through waist-deep mud inside homes in Montecito, and using rescue dogs to sniff out any bodies.
David Drenic digs through mud as he looks for salvageable items in a the home of a family member in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images A search and rescue dog is guided through properties destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters
Although it is becoming increasingly unlikely that anyone else will be found alive, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said some people had been rescued as late as Thursday (11 January). “In disaster circumstances there have been many miraculous stories lasting many days and we certainly are searching for a miracle right now,” he said.
Santa Barbara fire Captain Gary Pitney said most if not all recent rescues were of people who were safe but just wanted to get out of the area. “These were people that were sheltered in place that had needs that just took a while to get to some of them,” Pitney said. “They were OK but they wanted to get out.”
“At this moment, we are still looking for live victims,” Pitney said. But he confessed: “The likelihood is increasing that we’ll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that.” He noted that one survivor pulled from the muck earlier in the week was suffering from hypothermia after just an hour.
Mud fills the kitchen in a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Mud and boulders fill a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Search and rescue workers with dogs scour through properties after a mudslide Kyle Grillot/Reuters The interior of a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters Shirts hang on a wardrobe door inside a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Rescue workers search through damaged properties after a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters
The oldest victim was Jim Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before. He died with his wife of more than 50 years, Alice. The youngest, three-year-old Kailly Benitez, was one of four children killed.
The mudslide, triggered by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise, despite warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires had stripped hillsides of vegetation that normally holds soil in place. The disaster was already unfolding when Santa Barbara County officials sent out their first mobile alert at 3:50am on Tuesday (9 January).
As the rainwater rushed downhill with gathering force, it prised boulders from the ground and picked up trees and other debris that flattened homes, cars and carried at least one body a mile away.
Mudflow and damage from mudslides are pictured in this aerial photo taken from a Santa Barbara County Fire Department helicopter over Montecito Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County FD/Reuters Mudflow and damage from mudslides are pictured in this aerial photo taken from a Santa Barbara County Fire Department helicopter over Montecito Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County FD/Reuters A damaged house and vehicle are seen after a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters
Santa Barbara County authorities offered wildly fluctuating numbers of the missing throughout Thursday. A spokeswoman early in the day sent a shudder through the community when she said the number of people unaccounted for had surged from 16 to 48.
Within an hour, they said they had made a clerical error and the actual number of missing was eight. Later in the day, however, the sheriff said the number was at 43, combining missing persons reports filed with law enforcement and also inquiries by people who hadn’t been able to contact family members or friends.
Brown said some of those people could have left the area before or after the mudslides or may simply be out of touch with people concerned about them.
“I know it sounds like it’s a constantly moving number,” Brown said. “There hasn’t been a sound definition of what constitutes a missing person.” It could include everything from urgent, active missing-persons cases being worked by detectives to calls received from acquaintances saying they hadn’t been able to reach someone they believe was in Montecito on Tuesday morning.
Authorities would not specify how many people were in each category. Brown said he did not believe that there are 43 more dead bodies to be discovered, or even a figure close to that.
Firefighters dig through mud after a cadaver dog alerted them to a pile of debris outside a home in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images A firefighter walks past a mud-covered wall of front of a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images A rescue worker with a shovel pauses during the search for bodies after a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters A resident holds a family photo that was retrieved from a home in Montecito that was destroyed by a mudslide Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Workers clean mud from the parking garage at the Montecito Inn Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Mud and debris covers the front of a Mercedes Benz in Montecito Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Workers clear mud from roadways after a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters A football is covered in muddy water after a mudslide in Montecito Kyle Grillot/Reuters
Some residents of Santa Barbara County say the biggest wildfire in the state’s history and the deadly mudslides have dampened their California dreams.