The death toll in the Montecito mudslides rose to 18 Friday morning when searchers found the body of an 87-year-old man inside his Romero Canyon area home, bringing the number of people who remain missing to seven.
Teams are continuing to rescue people who were trapped by the mudslides that inundated the seaside community early Tuesday morning, and on Friday the entire 300 residents and staff of a retirement community were rescued, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
But the main artery connecting the Central Coast with Southern California will remain closed indefinitely, as Caltrans rescinded its estimated Monday reopening for Highway 101, which has been shut down since the mudslides.
Search-and-rescue operations are the priority for crews working in the closed area from Milpas Street to Highway 150, and that affects progress toward reopening the highway, a Caltrans spokeswoman said.
“We understand the impact that the closure of Highway 101 has on the people of California,” said Sara von Schwind, deputy director of maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 5. “We are teamed up with partner agencies responding to this tragedy and are working 24/7 to make progress toward reopening U.S. 101 while being cooperative with the search efforts underway.
“This is the department’s highest priority, and we are working in close coordination with incident command to get the job done as safely and quickly as possible.”
Mud, boulders and other debris that raced down the hills scorched by the Thomas fire not only littered the highway lanes but also blocked drainage channels and filled debris basins, forcing water to continue flowing onto the freeway — the biggest obstacle at Olive Mill Road.
“I flew over the area this morning, and there’s about three-quarters to a mile of water,” said Capt. Cindy Pontes, of the California Highway Patrol. “You can’t even see the center divider, and water is still coming down. They pump it out and it comes back in, pump it out and it comes back in. It’s a vicious cycle.”
She noted another rainstorm is forecast for the end of next week.
“From what I saw, the water has actually risen from the first day of the storm, so that’s not a good sign,” she said, adding that more equipment is not the problem. “They have enough resources. They just can’t keep the water from coming in.”
Shortly after 4 p.m., officials announced all the southbound freeway ramps in Summerland have been reopened.
Caltrans officials said until Highway 101 is fully reopened, southbound motorists can detour around the closed area by taking Highway 166 east to Interstate 5, then going south to Highway 126 and back west to Highway 101. Northbound motorists can follow the same route in reverse.
They also said trains and ferries are providing alternative transportation.
With debris cleared from the tracks, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner is now running five round-trips per day through the 11-mile closed area, and Island Packers and Condor Express are offering daily ferries from Ventura Harbor to Santa Barbara Harbor.
Reopening the freeway also depends on getting surface streets cleared, along with the drainage channels and debris basins.
“Each day we're making more progress in opening the streets and debris basins,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of County Flood Control, adding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at work and more equipment is arriving every hour.
Public Works and Flood Control workers are “racing to open them up as soon as possible,” Fayram said. “It’s essential to use every tool to accomplish the recovery of our community.”
Among those tools was a blasting operation that took place around 4:30 p.m. Friday at Toro Canyon Road and Highway 192, which also is closed.
Mud, rocks and other debris that’s being removed is being dumped on Goleta Beach, at the end of Ash Avenue, in the Foothill landfill, at Caltrans sites and several other locations outside the county, Fayram said.
“This is the same debris that went to the ocean in the storm,” he said. “We have to get this debris cleared, and we have to hurry. This is one community, and we will use any resources we can.”
Several officials said the mandatory evacuation of Montecito on Thursday evening has allowed damage assessment and repair crews to do more work more efficiently and helped search-and-rescue teams reach people who are still trapped by the mud and search for those who might not have survived.
As searchers were completing their initial assessment of all residences Friday they found 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel dead inside his home, bringing the total killed by the mudslides to 18, ranging in age from 3 to 89.
Bleckel was among those on the “missing” list that shrank from 43 on Thursday evening to seven just 24 hours later, although there was some confusion over the number because two of the missing had the same name.
John “Jack” Keating, a 53-year-old transient who often frequents the riverbed, is still missing. Another man named John Keating who was injured in the mudslides is being treated at a hospital out of the area.
Also missing is Delbert Weltzin, a 62-year-old transient who frequents the railroad tracks near Olive Mill Road, sheriff’s officials said.
Other missing persons who resided in areas heavily damaged during the storm and subsequent mudslides are Morgan Christine Corey, 25; John “Jack” Cantin, 17; Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28; Pinit Sutthithepa, 30, and Lydia Sutthithepa, 2.
The teams searching for them are made up of sheriff’s and fire personnel from four counties and include 114 engine companies, 29 canines and 16 specialized teams assisted by aerial units from the county, the CHP and U.S. Coast Guard, two armored all-terrain vehicles from the county Sheriff’s Office, trucks from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and vehicles from the California National Guard with high ground clearance.
Maria Zate, spokeswoman for Cottage Health, said since the mudslides Tuesday, a total of 28 patients have been treated and released or admitted to Cottage hospitals from storm-related injuries. As of Friday, a total of 11 remained hospitalized.
Of the four patients in critical condition Tuesday, three had improved to serious condition and one remained in critical condition.