Rescue crews continued to search for survivors amid the mud and wreckage of Montecito’s massive debris field on Thursday, but acknowledged that the window to save lives is rapidly closing.
As of Thursday afternoon, up to 43 people were unaccounted for following Tuesday’s massive mudflow, though officials said that number is highly fluid.
Earlier in the day, officials placed the number of missing at eight. They increased that number after authorities combed through social media posts and message boards at evacuation shelters. Others who were found, or identified among the dead, were crossed off.
“It’s a constantly moving number,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, adding that he expected the death toll to rise.
The mudslide killed at least 17 people and destroyed scores of homes. Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office released the names of the dead, who were all Montecito residents.
They were identified as Jonathan Benitez, 10; Kailly Benitez, 3; Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48; David Cantin, 49; Sawyer Corey, 12; Peter Fleurat, 73; Josephine Gower, 69; John McManigal, 61; Alice Mitchell, 78; James Mitchell, 89; Mark Montgomery, 54; Caroline Montgomery, 22; Marilyn Ramos, 27; Rebecca Riskin, 61; Roy Rohter, 84; Peerawat Sutthithepn, 6; and Richard Taylor, 67.
The county coroner has listed the cause of death for each victim as “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire.”
Brown also said authorities are expanding mandatory evacuation zones in the area because pedestrians and traffic are hindering rescue and repair operations.
People in the following boundaries were ordered to leave by 6 p.m.: the ocean to the south, Hot Springs Road to the west, the forest to the north, and Ladera Lane and Ortega Ridge Road to the east.
First responders have searched about 75% of the debris field left by a torrent of boulders, detritus and muck, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
“It is a massive operation that we have underway, still in the search and rescue mode, as mentioned, but as we transition and will transition to a recovery mode, we realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and for our community,” he said.
Emergency crews rescued three people Wednesday, using helicopters to reach residents trapped in canyon areas that were rendered inaccessible by mud, downed power lines and fallen trees.
“We continue to work down a list of missing people and their addresses and do a much more focused search of that area,” Montecito Fire District Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said during a news briefing Wednesday.
Much of the focus of Thursday’s search will be on areas where rescue crews had yet to reach, said Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the multiagency response team handling the disaster. Secondary searches also will be conducted in areas that emergency crews accessed earlier in the week.
Hundreds of people who were trapped but not injured in the slides, such as those stranded in Romero Canyon, were taken to safety on Wednesday, she said.
Emergency alerts from Santa Barbara County didn’t go out until after mudslides began in Montecito Anderson could not say Thursday morning whether the eight people still missing were believed to be in areas that rescue crews had yet to reach.
In some cases, the deluge seemed to split families as well as homes.
Fabiola Benitez, 28, was swept away along with her husband and two children when her house was leveled during Tuesday’s deluge, according to Lori Lieberman, a family friend. Benitez’s husband and older son were rescued and hospitalized in stable condition, according to Lieberman, who said Benitez and her 9-year-old son remain missing and are feared dead.
Roy Rohter, the founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was swept from his home alongside his wife on Tuesday morning, school officials said. Rohter did not survive; his wife was rescued and said to be in stable condition, the college said in a statement this week.
Rebecca Riskin, a Montecito real estate agent, also was identified as one of those killed, according to a statement issued by her firm. She is survived by her husband and two children, the statement said.
The surge destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings in Montecito and washed out a 30-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway. The roadway will remain closed until at least Monday from Highway 150 to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara as crews work around the clock to clear the area of mud, cars and other debris. On the stretch of the freeway by the Montecito Inn, several feet of mud and rubble collected in the road.
“It looks like a swamp — there’s so much stuff down there,” said Jose Gonzalez, a road crew worker stationed by a bridge over the 101. “Some of the locals think there’s probably bodies in there. I hope not.”
Nearly 60 single-family residences were destroyed in Montecito, and 446 others sustained damage, according to an update published Wednesday night by the multi-agency team responding to the devastation. An additional 1,500 homes remain threatened.
The debris field also cut off gas, electricity and water to much of the area. A boil water notice remains in effect for the Montecito Water District, officials said, and rescue personnel are concerned that those who survived the slide but remain trapped soon could run dangerously low on supplies.
From above, the debris flow appears as a near-endless swath of brown, interrupted occasionally by the roof tiles of inundated homes and clouds of smoke from smoldering structures. In a rescue helicopter that was surveying the damage on Wednesday, National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Sean Quillin said the shock and speed of the mudslide had left nearly every survivor shaken.