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Local News

Progress Is Slow but Steady in Montecito Flooding Recovery; 19th, 20th Fatalities Reported

Teams continue searching for survivors and victims; bodies of Morgan Corey, Pinit Sutthithepa located in debris

A large excavator removes debris from the flood area in Montecito on Saturday. Officials report making slow but steady progress in returning the devastated community to some semblance of normal. Click to view larger
A large excavator removes debris from the flood area in Montecito on Saturday. Officials report making slow but steady progress in returning the devastated community to some semblance of normal. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

This story was last updated at 11:59 a.m. Sunday.

Two workers use jackhammers to break up a giant boulder along East Valley Road/Highway 192 in Montecito. Click to view larger
Two workers use jackhammers to break up a giant boulder along East Valley Road/Highway 192 in Montecito. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Crews were making slow but steady progress Saturday on the Herculean task of returning the flood-ravaged community of Montecito to some semblance of normal.

More than 2,100 people are now assigned to the incident, said Jeff Ohs, operations chief for the incident management team, at a news media briefing Saturday afternoon.

As search teams continued looking for possible survivors as well as victims, heavy equipment was active throughout the 30-square-mile disaster zone.

At about 9 a.m., searchers made the grim discovery of Morgan Corey’s remains, buried in mud and debris east of Olive Mill Road, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Corey, 25, was the 19th confirmed fatality in the incident that stemmed from flash flooding spawned early Tuesday as heavy rain fell over the Thomas Fire burn area in the mountains above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.

A 20th fatality was reported Sunday morning.

The remains of Pinit Sutthithepa, 30, was found at about 3:45 p.m. Saturday along Hot Springs Road near Olive Mill Road, according to Kelly Hoover, a sheriff's spokeswoman.

Sutthithepa's 6-year-old son, Peerawat Sutthithepa, and his father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor, 79, were previously listed among the dead; his 2-year-old daughter, Lydia Sutthithepa, remains missing.

There was some good news Saturday, as Delbert Weltzin, 62, was found alive and well in Montecito, Brown said.

A CalFire firefighter helps a resident get clothing and other belongings from his home. Click to view larger
A CalFire firefighter helps a resident get clothing and other belongings from his home. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

The number of missing had dropped to four as of Sunday morning.

They also include Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28; John “Jack” Cantin, 17; and John “Jack” Keating, 53.

Teams have completed secondary searches of houses affected by the flooding, Ohs said, but continued digging through the countless piles of mud and debris.

In terms of recovery, the focus remains on cleaning out debris basins, creek beds, drains and culverts in anticipation of future rainfall.

“If we don’t get those debris basins cleaned out, then we’re not going to be prepared for the next storm,” said Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. “And we don’t know what that storm’s going to look like.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Adam Estabrook, left, and Engineer Rick Pinal search through a debris pile behind a Montecito house on Saturday. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Adam Estabrook, left, and Engineer Rick Pinal search through a debris pile behind a Montecito house on Saturday. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Significant progress was made Saturday in restoring Montecito Creek to its normal course, said Tom Fayram, the county’s deputy public works director.

That is a necessary step toward reopening Highway 101 through Montecito, as water continues to flow onto the freeway despite ongoing pumping.

A remaining challenge is unclogging the conduits that carry Montecito Creek’s flow under the freeway and railroad tracks, and eventually to the ocean, Fayram said.

“The storm drain pipes seem like more of a critical issue than the creeks at this point,” he said.

In the meantime, the Highway 101 closure remains a monumental problem for commuters, as well as local residents and those using what is normally one of California’s main north-south routes.

The wrecked interior of a Hot Springs Road residence. Click to view larger
The wrecked interior of a Hot Springs Road residence. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Plans are being developed to provide daily transportation through the disaster zone for people who are identified as “critical needs,” Lewin told Noozhawk.

“We’re probably going to have a system where we have people come to a staging area either in Ventura County or Carpinteria or both, and then they will be put in buses,” he said. “It will be based on the criteria that they either provide health and life safety, or they are educators of K thru 12.”

The buses likely would run “once very early in the morning and once late in the evening, so they’re going to have really long days at work to do that,” Lewin said, adding that officials hope to have the system underway by Tuesday.

In the meantime, there are very limited options for traversing the disaster zone: Amtrak service is running again through the area, although trains have been reported at standing room only.

On Friday night, approval was given for three locomotives and eight passenger cars to be loaned to the Pacific Starlight route from the Capitol Corridor route in Northern California to increase passenger capacity.

Searchers dig through debris looking for possible victims. Click to view larger
Searchers dig through debris looking for possible victims. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

A limited number of people also can go by boat on either the Condor Express or with Island Packers.

A group calling itself Thomas Fire Help has created an online platform to help people with transportation in response to the freeway closure, as well as other post-disaster needs. Through an electronic form, those in need of transit are being connected to an all-volunteer team of airplane and helicopter pilots.

Otherwise, motorists must take a lengthy detour north to either Highway 166 in Santa Maria or Highway 46 in Paso Robles, then head east to Interstate 5 before driving south toward Los Angeles.

Officials have acknowledged from the outset that the Montecito Water District’s facilities suffered major damage, and said Saturday that progress is being made on repairs.

But the sewage lines operated by the Montecito Sanitary District also sustained major damage, and were being assessed and repaired, Lewin said.

“The treatment facility is intact,” he said. “One of the concerns they have is the debris that has gone into the sewer system, and all the effects that has on the system.”

Santa Barbara City College has delayed the start of spring semester classes a week to Monday, Jan. 22, and extended the end date of the semester by one week, to May 19.

“A significant number of our faculty, staff and students who live south of Santa Barbara are affected by the (Highway) 101 closure, making the start of our spring semester difficult to implement,” SBCC President Anthony Beebe said in a campus-wide email.

SBCC tweeted Saturday night that the postponement applies to all credit and noncredit classes, and that campus and all administrative offices will still be open Jan. 16-19.

Spring break will remain the same, March 26-31. The first summer session will start on its original date, May 21.

A candlelight vigil for victims of the flooding disaster was held Saturday evening in Carpinteria, and another is schedule for 5 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden.

Also, a community meeting has been scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, at La Cumbre Junior High, 2255 Modoc Road.

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.

Mud and debris along Channel Drive near the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club. Click to view larger
Mud and debris along Channel Drive near the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)
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