At least 13 people were killed Tuesday when a rainstorm sent mud and debris coursing through Montecito neighborhoods and left rescue crews to scramble through clogged roadways and downed trees to search for victims.
The deluge that washed over Santa Barbara County early Tuesday was the worst-case scenario for a community that was ravaged by the Thomas fire only a few weeks earlier. In just a matter of minutes, pounding rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito and flooded a creek that leads to the ocean, sending mud and massive boulders rolling into residential neighborhoods, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.
At least 25 other people were injured, authorities said at an afternoon news conference. Crews rescued 50 people by air and dozens more from the ground.
“It’s going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area,” Eliason said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario.”
The deaths came after a heavy band of rain struck around 2:30 a.m., causing “waist-high” mudflows, Eliason said.
The mudslide struck a section of the city that is south of the Thomas fire’s burn area and was not subject to a mandatory evacuation, Eliason said. Rescue personnel have yet to even make it north of Highway 192, which is closer to soil scorched by last month’s wildfire. Burned areas are less capable of absorbing water, making them even more susceptible to flooding and mudslides.
Officials had no estimate on how many people could be trapped or how many homes were damaged. The search for survivors was still underway Tuesday afternoon, with many places inaccessible.
The founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura was among those killed early Tuesday morning when a powerful mudslide swept him and his wife from their Montecito home.
Roy Rohter was identified by officials at Thomas Aquinas College, from which his daughter graduated in 2000. His wife, Theresa, was rescued and is in stable condition, officials said.
Friends remembered Rohter as an energetic leader and generous benefactor of the college.
“Roy Rohter was a man of strong faith and a great friend of Catholic education,” Michael F. McLean, president of the college, said in a statement posted on the school’s website. “He played a pivotal role in the lives of countless young Catholic students — students who came to a deeper knowledge and love of Christ because of his vision, commitment, and generosity.”
Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of St. Augustine, said in a statement that Rohter “has done so much for so many people and pro-life and Catholic education causes. … Thousands have been blessed by the Rohters’ friendship and generosity.”
Emergency crews spent the first hours of light making rescues in voluntary evacuation zones near Montecito Creek north of U.S. 101.
In the 300 block of Hot Springs Road, crews rescued six people and a dog after four homes were destroyed. The mud lifted one home off its foundation and carried it into trees, where it then collapsed, Eliason said. Firefighters cut their way into the home where a firefighter heard muffled cries for help from a 14-year-old girl, Eliason said.
A rescue dog pinpointed the girl’s location and two hours later, the mud-covered girl was pulled free. A second 14-year-old girl was also rescued from the same neighborhood and carried from ankle-high mud in a basket by half a dozen firefighters.
The U.S. Coast Guard also sent rescue helicopters into the area Tuesday morning, hoisting several people from collapsed homes or rooftops that stood above swirling mud and water. Rescue personnel were also able to save a young boy who was swept more than half a mile south from his house after the building was lifted from its foundation in Montecito, authorities said.
The boy was found alive under a U.S. 101 overpass, authorities said. But his father remains unaccounted for.
On Hot Springs Road Tuesday afternoon, a dozen sheriff’s deputies carried a body on a gurney from a collapsed house as muddy water raced down the street. The deputies surrounded the body in silence for several moments before placing it gently into an emergency vehicle.
The highest preliminary rainfall total appeared to register at roughly 5 inches in a gauge north of Ojai in Ventura County, in the burn area of the Thomas fire, which forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles. With heavy showers still forecast, flash flood warnings remained in effect for Santa Barbara County and southern Ventura County through Tuesday afternoon, according to the NWS.
The 101 Freeway was shut down in both directions for more than 30 miles in the Thomas fire burn area because of flooding and debris flow, spanning an area from Santa Barbara to Ventura, according to the California Highway Patrol. Sections of Routes 33 and 150 were also closed in Ventura County, according to the Sheriff’s Department. There was no estimate for when the roadway might reopen, a California Department of Transportation spokesman said Tuesday afternoon.
In Los Angeles, one person was killed when a big rig overturned in the northbound lanes of the 5 Freeway near Los Feliz, said Saul Gomez, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol’s Southern Division. All northbound lanes were closed as of 4 a.m., though Gomez said police were hoping to reopen the roadway by 8 a.m.
The victim, who was not identified, was approximately 60 years old, Gomez said. No one else was injured. While the accident happened as rain fell across Los Angeles County, Gomez said he could not confirm the crash was storm-related.
The fatal crash was one of hundreds that occurred during the downpour. Between 5 and 9 a.m. Tuesday, there were 275 traffic collisions reported on Los Angeles-area freeways, the California Highway Patrol said. There were only 30 during the same time period a week ago.
Santa Barbara County officials evacuated nearly 7,000 residents from foothill communities shortly before the heaviest surge hit the area, according to Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
About 3 a.m., she said, the storm became ferocious.
“We just had a deluge, a power surge of rain. And we had a report of a structure fire burning in the Montecito area, the San Ysidro area. And it just kept going downhill from there,” she said. “We have people stuck in their homes, stuck in their cars. There’s downed power lines, flooded roadways, debris.”
Hoover said the shutdown of the 101 Freeway was heavily hindering rescue efforts.
“There’s no way to get from Ventura here, no way for us to get south,” Hoover said. “We’re encouraging people to stay off the roads if they’re in an evacuation area.”
Santa Barbara County officials put a boil water notice in effect for the entire Montecito Water District on Tuesday afternoon.
In Los Angeles County, there was “mudslide activity” on Country Club Drive in Burbank, where police ordered evacuations of all homes east of Montana on Tuesday morning. The Burbank Police Department released footage of water surging across a roadway and urged people not to attempt to drive over it. Some vehicles were picked up and moved by the surge, and a few homes suffered minor damage, but no one had been injured as of 1 p.m., according to Sgt. Derek Green, a Burbank police spokesman.
The torrent of mud and debris sheared at least three fire hydrants, pumping another 130,000 gallons of water onto the debris flow, said Bill Mace, an assistant general manager of water systems for Burbank Water and Power.
Country Club Drive residents Allie Vonnacher, 17, and her mom, Heidi Donato-Fennell, 42, said they awoke to the site of several cars flowing down the street, along with power lines, trees and mailboxes.
“It’s just surreal how powerful nature is,” Donato-Fennell said. “You just hope it stays contained in the street and it doesn’t become life threatening.”
Surges also washed out Topanga Canyon Boulevard north of Pacific Coast Highway, and sections of the 110 Freeway were closed because of flooding. The Los Angeles Fire Department had to launch a swift-water rescue to aid a man and a dog trapped in rising water near the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, and an LAPD cruiser became mired in a debris flow on La Tuna Canyon Road, according to authorities. The officer was uninjured and walked out of the vehicle. The cruiser was in the process of being dug out of the mud with a backhoe Tuesday.
International travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport also had to be diverted from Terminal 2 on Tuesday morning, after the customs area became flooded, the airport said on Twitter.
The CHP also said heavy rains likely contributed to a crash that left one person dead on Highway 126 in Ventura County, about two miles from the Los Angeles County line, on Monday afternoon. One woman died and two others were injured in the five-car crash, the agency said.
The NWS was reporting rainfall totals of up to five inches in Ventura County and 3.3 inches in Santa Barbara County as of 11 a.m. Nearly 11/2 inches of rain had fallen in Bel-Air, which could be susceptible to mudslides and debris flow because of damage caused by the Skirball fire last month.
The storm spared some areas that were affected by last month’s blazes. Early Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders for neighborhoods in the burn areas of the Creek and Fish fires were lifted, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In Montecito, some residents said they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the morning mess.
“I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions,” said Dominic Shiach, 50. “It’s actually way worse than I thought it was going to be.”
(Livingston reported from Montecito. Queally and Serna reported from Los Angeles.)
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