As search and rescue efforts continued Wednesday, the death toll from devastating mudslides that struck the Montecito area after torrential rains early Tuesday morning climbed to 17, with 17 people also missing.
Dozens of homes were destroyed, dozens more were damaged, and the debris area spread over 30 square miles, said Amber Anderson, a Santa Barbara County spokeswoman.
Crews from four counties, including many from Santa Maria and northern Santa Barbara County, coroners and staff from multiple jurisdictions converged on the area to assist local officials. Caltrans announced that Highway 101, which is still a muddy river, will remain closed until midday Monday.
“The process of positively identifying the victims is slow and can’t be rushed,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
At least 25 people were injured, and 50 or more had to be rescued by helicopters, authorities said. Four of the injured were reported in severely critical condition.
Brown said the fact that the number of people who have been killed and those that are missing is the same is a coincidence. The number of unaccounted people dropped from 24 on Wednesday morning to 17 by about 4:30 p.m.
“We have a lot of clues and indications as to who people are; we have to get this right,” Brown said, adding the identities of the deceased will be released sometime in the future.
Emergency officials set up a Family Assistance Center at the First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance Ave. in Santa Barbara. Families and friends still trying to connect with loved ones who may have been affected by the storm can call 833-688-5551.
Along with the 100 search and rescue personnel from Los Angeles and crews from other distant jurisdictions including the National Guard, the city of Santa Maria dispatched fire department resources and staff from nearly every department to help.
“It all started Sunday night,” Fire Chief Leonard Champion said, when Santa Barbara County Emergency Management Office leaders asked for help from local municipalities to prepare for the storm.
Santa Maria sent its Heavy Rescue crew, consisting of two vehicles and six firefighters and a battalion chief, to Santa Barbara to stage for what forecasters correctly predicted would be a devastating storm.
Crews from the cities of Lompoc and Guadalupe also joined in the effort.
“The rain came and off they went. I think all of those efforts paid off to have those resources staged and plans in place. I’ve heard a lot of good reports of multiple rescues by our staff,” Champion said.
“It was the right thing to do. They are in a tough spot and we are close. We weren’t impacted by this weather event like they were. We were ramped up for the weather here and we used those ramped up resources down there,” Santa Maria City Manager Jason Stilwell said of sending Santa Maria resources.
Montecito area officials are also receiving help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The streams of water, mud and debris that were unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep Santa Ynez Mountains, reached across Highway 101 toward the ocean, flowing from hillsides that were stripped of vegetation last month by the Thomas fire, the largest wildfire on record in California.