Frantic search for survivors after mudslides kill 17 in California

MONTECITO, Calif. — Rescue workers searched for survivors after tons of mud, trees and boulders swept away homes in Southern California this week, killing 17 people.

Heavy rains sent debris tumbling down hillsides Tuesday, demolishing homes in the affluent seaside community of Montecito weeks after the largest fire in the state charred vegetation in the area.

In addition to the fatalities, at least 17 people are unaccounted for, authorities said. As residents await word on their loved ones, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the priority is on finding survivors.

“Right now, our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” Brown told CNN affiliate KCAL.

Rescue workers are using helicopters and dogs in a search hampered by blocked roads, downed trees and power lines.

Latest developments

• Deadly storm: All 17 deaths were reported in Santa Barbara County, authorities said. An additional 28 people were injured in the county.

• Thousands evacuated: At least 7,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday and 23,000 have voluntarily evacuated, the affiliate reported.

• Rescue efforts: More than 500 first responders and 10 dogs are searching for victims in Santa Barbara County.

• Hundreds of calls: The storm hit hard between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Tuesday. Between those times, sheriff’s office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for help, Brown said.

• Destruction: Floodwaters and mudslides destroyed 100 homes and damaged 300 more residences in Santa Barbara County.

• Road closed: The debris also shut down parts of the oceanside US 101, a major thoroughfare connecting Northern and Southern California.

Race against time

In Montecito, rescuers scoured through mounds of mud, furniture and fallen trees to search for trapped victims.

Some got good news of disoriented loved ones rescued from the roof of their muddied, flooded home. But others were not so lucky.

Diane Brewer said her friend, Josie Gower, 69, died after she opened her door and was swept away by the mudslide.

"It was always a full a life with Josie. Now, it's just a hole," she said.

Catholic school founder Roy Rohter, 84, and his wife, Theresa, were swept from their Montecito home. Rohter died, but Theresa was rescued, said Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, which Rohter founded in 1994.

While authorities have not released the names of the victims, some of their relatives have confirmed their identities.

The missing

James and Alice Mitchell, an elderly couple from Montecito, are among those missing, their granddaughter, Sarah Weimer, told CNN on Wednesday.

Rebecca Riskin, the founding partner of Montecito real estate company Riskin Partners, is also missing, according to her relative, Lynne Creighton. Riskin began selling real estate in Los Angeles and moved to Montecito nearly three decades ago.

Before the storm hit, Santa Barbara issued mandatory evacuations for 7,000 people, including in parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, which are below areas scorched by wildfires, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said.

"While some residents cooperated with the evacuations, many did not. Many chose to stay in place," said Brown, the sheriff.

Sheriff deputies spent Monday conducting door-to-door evacuations in the mandatory evacuation area. But the area where homes were destroyed, south of Highway 192, was not in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Pounding rain

The rain hit fast Tuesday, landing on hillsides stripped of their vegetation by the massive blaze that started last month.

The Thomas Fire -- the largest wildfire in California's recorded history -- has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It's 92% contained, and officials don't expect full containment until later this month.

Without the vegetation to make the terrain more resistant to mudslides when it rained Tuesday, boulders and other debris rolled down onto roads and communities.

Montecito and Carpinteria are especially vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above sea level to sea level in "a matter of just a few miles," said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County.

Mudslides are not uncommon to the area. In January 2005, a landslide struck La Conchita in Ventura County, killing 10 people.