California rescuers keep up search for missing in deadly mudslide

17 people have been confirmed dead

Southern California rescue workers using dogs and scanners searched for eight people feared lost in the wreckage of this week's deadly mudslides, which struck along the state's picturesque coastal communities, according to officials.

Seventeen people were confirmed dead after a wall of mud roared down hillsides two days earlier in the scenic area between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, according to Santa Barbara County authorities. The mudslides also destroyed about 100 homes and injured 28 people.

"The focus is still on search and rescue; that's still our primary goal," Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said in a phone interview. "They've been working 24 hours a day."

Almost 700 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters, and thermal imaging equipment were on the scene. The tally of the missing dropped to eight from 17 on Thursday morning, as people were rescued or accounted for.

Search and rescue efforts have been slow as crews have had to make their way through waist-deep mud, fallen trees, boulders and other debris. Teams have completed initial searches of the entire debris field and are about a quarter of the way through a more intensive follow-up search of the zone, Anderson said.

The mudslides, triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month. Streets in the region were clogged with mud, downed trees and debris including bits of destroyed homes and cars and trucks swept away by the mudslides.

In addition to destroying 100 homes, the debris flow from the mudslides has damaged hundreds of other structures, officials said.


Families and friends of the people who died in the mudslides began to identify those lost.

The first to be identified was Roy Rohter, 84, founder of the St. Augustine Academy Roman Catholic school, who died when the slide swept him for his home in Montecito, in the mud's path, according to school officials and local news media.

Rebecca Riskin, who owned an eponymous real-estate agency, also died in the disaster, her company said in a Facebook post. Riskin was 61, according to local media.

Among the damaged properties were historic hotels and the homes of celebrities, including media mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and actor Jeff Bridges, who all live in Montecito, an upscale hillside community.

"Our home has been severely damaged, but we are safe, and so thankful for that and for the first responders who are working tirelessly to save people," Bridges wrote on Twitter. "We are heartbroken over the loss of lives in our community."

Last month's spate of wildfires, including the largest in California history, burned away grass and shrubs that held soil in place, and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

"First we got burned out at our ranch that caught on fire and now we're flooding, so the last month has been pretty bad," Charles Stoops said as he stood in front of his house, which was surrounded in mud nearly a metre deep.

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