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.
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.
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.
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.
Santa Barbara County authorities offered wildly fluctuating numbers of the missing throughout Thursday and Friday. A spokeswoman early on Thursday 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.
By Friday morning, the number of the missing had dropped to just five.
Some residents of Santa Barbara County say the biggest wildfire in the state's history and the deadly mudslides have dampened their California dreams.