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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 11:05 pm | Fair 50º


Death and Injury Toll Rises as Rescuers Continue Scouring Flood-Ravaged Montecito Neighborhoods

Hot Springs Road/Olive Mill Road appeared to be the epicenter of the disaster; at least 17 killed and 25 hurt


This story was last updated at 4:16 pa.m.

Rescue crews continued combing the battered neighborhoods of Montecito Tuesday afternoon and evening, looking for survivors of the flash-flooding episode that killed at least 17 people and injured dozens of others.

Much of the search-and-rescue work was being done by a fleet of helicopters — from Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, the California Highway Patrol, and the U.S. Coast Guard — as many areas remained difficult if not impossible to reach by crews on the ground.

Officials told Noozhawk they expect the death toll to rise, as they haven’t even been able to reach many of the foothill neighborhoods.

Hot Springs Road/Olive Mill Road appeared to be the epicenter of the disaster, as mud, water, boulders and debris surged out of Cold Spring and Hot Springs canyons above Montecito, which were denuded by the giant Thomas Fire. The deadly slurry from Montecito Creek carved a course of destruction down nearly to the ocean.

Officials say 100 single-family homes were destroyed and 300 others were damaged, some knocked completely off their foundations.

In addition, eight commercial properties were destroyed and 20 others were damaged.

Throughout the day Tuesday, emergency dispatchers handled a seemingly endless stream of requests for help from people who were trapped in their homes and vehicles. 

In many cases, the helicopters used hoists to lift the evacuees and ferry them to safety.

Rescuers carry a dog near a damaged house on Olive Mill Road. Click to view larger
Rescuers carry a dog near a damaged house on Olive Mill Road.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Responders had conducted at least 50 hoist rescues as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the county, and dozens more ground rescues.

Much of the damage and many of the casualties occurred in areas that were under evacuation warnings rather than mandatory evacuation orders.

Crews were working to evacuate people by helicopter from Romero Canyon, where about 300 people were trapped, and from the Birnam Wood Golf Club, a collection point for people who could not otherwise get out of the area, Montecito Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said. 

Highway 101 through Montecito was a muddy mess, strewn with abandoned vehicles and debris, and was expected to remain shut down indefinitely.

"There is substantial debris, mud, water, vehicles and possible infrastructure damage along U.S. 101 from Hot Springs Road to Sheffield Road, plus a Flash Flood Watch until 10 p.m., so it's likely to remain closed overnight," ​Caltrans District 5 spokesman Colin Jones said Tuesday afternoon. 

Caltrans later said the roadway would be closed in the Montecito area through at least Thursday night, and drivers should avoid non-essential travel and use Interstate 5 as an alternate route.

People trapped by flood water, mud flows and debris are helped to safety on Tuesday. Click to view larger
People trapped by flood water, mud flows and debris are helped to safety on Tuesday. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara-area CHP Commander Cindy Pontes noted that a water main break in the Olive Mill Road area caused additional damage to Highway 101 infrastructure. 

Most roads through Montecito remained impassable, and emergency personnel were using high-profile vehicles to gain access to stricken neighborhoods.

Coast Village Road was covered with mud, boulders and debris, and several buildings in the commercial zone appeared to have sustained significant damage. 

Railroad traffic through the area also was halted, as much of the track through Montecito was covered with mud and rocks.

In addition to the 15 confirmed dead by the Sheriff's Department, officials said at least 25 people were injured, although that number also is expected to rise.

A view of Montecito from the air Tuesday shows homes swept away by mud and debris. Click to view larger
A view of Montecito from the air Tuesday shows homes swept away by mud and debris.  (Ventura County Air Support Unit photo)

Names of those killed were not released, but Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula shared the name of one victim on its website.

Roy Rohter, a benefactor of the college and founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was swept away in a mudslide and did not survive, the college said.

Rohter's wife, Theresa, also was swept away, but was rescued and was hospitalized in stable condition, the college said.

There were also many missing persons, and Sheriff Bill Brown said it was unknown exactly how many but there were at least two dozen "outstanding people" as of Tuesday morning. 

Santa Barbara and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospitals' emergency departments had seen 20 patients with flood-related injuries as of Tuesday afternoon, said Dr. Brett Wilson, director of the emergency department.

Four of the 20 were in critical condition, and the concern is that additional survivors could be in poor condition given the hours of exposure and lack of treatment for their injuries, he said. 

There was no official tally of structures damaged or destroyed, but it was expected to be considerable.

One challenge facing responders was the difficulty of evacuating people from areas that are inaccessible due to to the amount of mud, rocks and debris on the roadways.

Plans were being made to shelter those people in place, while providing them with food, water, blankets, etc. 

Others were being evacuated by vehicle when possible, and helicopter if necessary, and an evacuation center is open at Santa Barbara City College, 721 Cliff Drive.

The shelter moved from the campus' cafeteria to the gymnasium because so many people arriving were "literally covered in mud," and the gym has shower facilities, said Kimberly Coley of the American Red Cross. There was plenty of capacity there for evacuated residents, she said Tuesday evening. 

Another challenge is providing fuel to the dozens of emergency vehicles involved in the operation, as many cannot drive out due to mud and other blockages.

Officials were discussing airlifting in fuel for those vehicles.

While the brunt of the storm passed by Tuesday afternoon, forecasters say there is still a chance of showers and thunderstorms through the evening.

Heavy rainfall and thunderstorms are possible, which could add to the problems and misery in Montecito and Carpinteria.

Although seemingly not as hard hit as Montecito, the Carpinteria Valley also was digging out Tuesday afternoon.

Creeks surged across Highway 101 in several places, and there were reports of damage throughout the valley.

Santa Barbara County opened a Family Assistance Center Tuesday for people to get help finding friends or family who may have been impacted by the storm.

The center at First Presbyterian Church, at 21 E. Constance St., was scheduled to be open until 8 p.m. Tuesday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday. 

​​The county has an information line for people to get storm updates, request transportation assistance and talk to a counselor, at 805.681.5542, or by calling 2-1-1. 

Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.

Residents are encouraged to sign up for alerts from the Aware & Prepare program, and to heed all evacuation orders and warnings.

» Click here for Santa Barbara County’s interactive map of possible flooding areas.

» Click here for the latest weather forecast.

» Click here for real-time rainfall amounts.

» Click here for road closures in Santa Barbara County.

» Click here to sign up for Noozhawk’s free breaking news text alerts to your cell phone.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Video of San Diego-based U.S. Coast Guard crew rescuing a family in Carpinteria after flash flooding.

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