At least 19 people are dead and five remain missing after heavy rains pounded Southern California, unleashing mudflows in areas ravaged by wildfires last month.

As the death toll in the Montecito mudslides increased today, officials announced that the 101 Freeway will remain closed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, portraits of the victims are beginning to emerge.

Closures

Track key details on Southern California storm evacuations and road closures

Santa Barbara and Ventura counties:

  • Evacuations: Residents in burn zones in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties were ordered to leave.
  • Road closures: The unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria: North of Hwy. 192 to the U.S. Forest Service Boundary; East of Cold Springs Road to Toro Canyon Road on the West. South of Hwy 192 to the ocean; East of Sycamore Canyon Road/Hot Springs Road/Oak Road/Olive Mill to Ortega Ridge Road on the West.
  • Southbound Highway 101 is closed from Milpas Street to Padaro Lane between Camarillo to Carpinteria. Northbound Highway 101 is closed from Highway 150 to Milpas Street. Highway 192 is closed in multiple locations.
  • Island Packers in Ventura and Condor Express in Santa Barbara are offering ferry services between the cities. Amtrak has restarted Surfliner and Coast Starlight service between Santa Barbara and Oxnard.
  • Santa Barbara County fire officials have rescued several people trapped in debris flows on Hot Springs Road in Montecito. At least 20 people have died in the Montecito area. As of Monday afternoon, up to three people were still missing. Approximately 100 homes were destroyed and 300 were damaged in the mudslides.

Los Angeles County:

2-year-old girl among those still missing in Montecito mudslides; 20 confirmed dead

At least four people remain missing Monday as the grim effort to find bodies under tons of mud and debris continued in Montecito.

The death toll now stands at 20, nearly a week after the most destructive mudslide in California in decades.

On Sunday, searchers had found the body of the latest victim: 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa, whose 6-year-old son, Peerawat, was also killed. Sutthithepa’s 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, is missing.

Death toll in Montecito mudslide rises to 19, while 101 Freeway will remain closed indefinitely

As the death toll in the Montecito mudslides increased to 19 on Saturday, officials announced that the 101 Freeway would remain closed indefinitely.

Search and rescue crews recovered the body of Morgan Corey, 25, who was found in debris near Mill Road about 9 a.m. Saturday, officials said. She was among at least five people who were still listed as missing.

At a late afternoon news conference at the Earl Warren Fairgrounds, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Eric Peterson spoke about the difficulties and challenges faced by emergency responders in their search for survivors.

Among mudslide victims were children and retirees, longtime residents and immigrants

Peter Fleurat and his partner, Lalo Barajas, wanted to ride out the storm together.

Their house on Hot Springs Road in Montecito was in a voluntary evacuation zone. The couple decided to stay home, keeping an eye on their sprawling property — especially their beloved garden and koi pond.

Early Tuesday morning, the floor began to roll underneath their bed. Then a wave of mud and debris punched through their wall. The force of the debris flow sucked them both out of the house, Barajas told CBS News.

A veteran of tragedies from 9/11 to Katrina, one firefighter counts herself blessed to be able to help during one more

Los Angeles firefighter Hollyn Bullock. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles firefighter Hollyn Bullock. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)

In the 27 years since joining the Los Angeles Fire Department, Hollyn Bullock has reported for search-and-rescue duty for tragedies like the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York, Hurricane Katrina and the deadly train derailment in Chatsworth that claimed 25 lives.

On Friday, the veteran firefighter joined a team scouring through the wreckage of the latest disaster. Seventeen people were dead after mudslides tore through the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito. At least five remained missing.

And so, along a sodden, debris-tangled corner just east of the 101 Freeway, Bullock and others searched on.

“Honestly, I feel fulfilled, even blessed to have been given the opportunity to get in there and help people in times of crisis,” she said as fellow firefighters hosed contaminated mud off her boots and pant legs.

She was part of a team of 26 men and one woman: herself. 

The team tried to sound an optimistic note – hoping for the best, bracing for the worst – as they used an arsenal of tools, technology and specially trained dogs to probe debris piles more than 15 feet deep near the corner of Creekside Road and Sheffield Drive. 

“It’s as exhausting, frustrating and tedious as looking for a needle in a haystack,” Battalion Chief Mark Akahoshi said, while hunched over a topographical map of surrounding terrain studded with ranches and mansions offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

Nodding appreciatively toward team members tramping knee deep through mud contaminated with pesticides and sewage, he said, “Take a look at the dedication on the faces of these guys. They’re in it for as long as it takes to finish the job and say, ‘That’s it. Done. We searched every inch.’ ”

Bullock, 55, plans to retire in the summer.

She joined the department in 1990, when women made up an even smaller fraction of the firefighting force.

“It was my father who suggested I become a firefighter. But sometimes I feel I was born to be one,” she said. “I can bore you to tears with stories about comradery, hard, dirty team work and helping folks out of the worst trouble of their lives.”

“So, yes, I’m bowing out in summer,” she added with a smile as fire trucks roared past. “But there are other women firefighters joining up even as I speak, and this won’t be the last disaster of this scale. I can guarantee that.”

Number of people missing in deadly Montecito slide reduced to five, officials say

The number of people still missing in the wake of a deadly mudslide in Montecito now figures at five, officials said Friday morning.

Authorities said late Thursday that roughly 43 people were unaccounted for after heavy rains pounded the Thomas fire burn scar earlier this week and unleashed a torrent of mud, boulders and debris that killed 17 and destroyed scores of homes. The number of missing had grown, officials said, after authorities combed through social media posts and message boards at evacuation shelters.

Many of those people since have been reported safe, according to Chris Elms, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, but the number of people missing remains fluid.

The same elements that made the Thomas fire such a monster also created deadly debris flows

Santa Barbara County crews worked through the holidays to defend coastal communities from the second half of Southern California's familiar cycle of fire and flood.

They cleaned out the 11 debris basins that dot the Santa Barbara front country, making room for the dirt and ash and rocks that winter rains would inevitably send tumbling down mountain slopes laid bare by the massive Thomas Fire.

But when the first major storm of the season slammed into the coast Monday, the thundering deluge of mud, car-sized boulders and trees that fell upon Montecito was beyond anything they expected.

Couple separated by a wall of mud — and only one survived

Boulders, logs and a carpet of mud in front of a house along San Ysidro Creek near East Valley Road in Montecito. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
Boulders, logs and a carpet of mud in front of a house along San Ysidro Creek near East Valley Road in Montecito. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Late Monday, Josie Gower stacked two rows of sandbags around her home in Montecito and settled in for the night.

Her home on East Valley Road was in the voluntary evacuation zone for the storm expected to sweep through the area.

Gower was not concerned. She told her family that she had weathered worse than the storm she believed was on its way, including the Thomas fire — the largest in California’s recorded history — just one month before.

Around 3 a.m. Tuesday, Gower, 69, woke up to the sound of rain thundering on the roof. She walked downstairs, where her boyfriend had been keeping an eye on the storm. Together, they opened the front door and looked outside.

A wall of mud, debris and boulders as big as pickup trucks thundered toward the house, sweeping the couple out the front door. Gower clung to the door frame. Her boyfriend reached for her hand.

Neither could hold on.

Santa Barbara CountyVentura County

Fire, mudflows, evacuations and deaths: Maps show how Montecito has been hit

The Thomas fire began its destructive march 30 miles east of Montecito on Dec. 4. Two weeks later, the blaze had begun to bear down on the city, eventually leaving fire-scarred hillsides prone to deadly mudflows.

Thomas fire progression

The Thomas fire became California's largest wildfire on record, burning more than 280,000 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

 (Raoul Ranoa / @latimesgraphics)
(Raoul Ranoa / @latimesgraphics)

Debris flow potential

In the weeks since the deadly fire, the U.S. Geological Survey studied the burn area to determine its vulnerability to flash floods, mudslides and debris flows. The likelihood of a debris flow is based on a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour. Scientists used burn severity, soil properties, rainfall data and a number of other factors for their estimation.

 (Raoul Ranoa / @latimesgraphics)
(Raoul Ranoa / @latimesgraphics)
Santa Barbara County

Wearing a little boy's rainboots, 88-year-old Montecito resident evacuated with help of neighbors

Neighbors help an 88-year-old woman, Gloria Hebert, evacuate her Montecito home. None
Neighbors help an 88-year-old woman, Gloria Hebert, evacuate her Montecito home.

On Wednesday morning, Liana Mortazavi, 49, sat in the frame of the back door of the duplex where her mom has lived for nearly 40 years along Olive Mill Road.

She had driven from San Jose on Tuesday night and slogged her way through mud with a childhood friend to reach her 88-year-old mother, Gloria Hebert.

The front door was blocked by a tree, mud and debris. When they got inside the house, they pushed up a couch against the front door to keep more mud from seeping in. When Mortazavi measured the mud around the house where she'd grown up, she said there was 14-1/2 inches all around the house.

“It's impossible for my mom to walk out of here,” she said.

Although Mortazavi planned to call the Montecito Fire Department to help evacuate her mom, it was neighbors who came to the rescue.

Hebert put her arms around their necks and they lifted her together over the mud. She wore rain boots belonging to her neighbor's 6th-grade son. 

“What was amazing to me was that the community did come together,” Mortazavi said. “These are neighbors — I was a classmate with one of them since childhood. It’s amazing how these childhood relationships, they’ll just kick in really fast. There's this foundation of community.”

Mortazavi and her mom reached San Jose by 8 p.m. Wednesday. 

“My mom will stay with us as long as she needs to,” Mortazavi said. “If it’s a long-term thing, we’ve got a plan.”

Mud picked up one elderly couple and tossed them into closet

Around 10 a.m. Wednesday, about half a dozen search-and-rescue crews, working in the wake of devastating rain and mudflows, began looking for missing people along Olive Mill Road and Hot Springs Road here.

Moving through a few feet of mud, rescuers looked inside wrecked cars and destroyed homes. Nearby, about a dozen nursing home staffers from Casa Dorinda braced the mud — many wearing sandals and sneakers— not expecting to see the level of devastation that now engulfed the street.

The nursing home employs 150 people and has around 300 residents. Many residents didn’t leave despite being under a voluntary evacuation order. One portion of the nursing home was destroyed.

After trekking through knee-deep mud, the nursing home staffers were greeted with happy cheers from residents. “Ahoy!” one yelled. 

Chris Lambert, 72, didn’t evacuate. He’s been a ER physician for the last 40 years and volunteers with the medical reserves corps in Santa Barbara County.

He said he heard a roaring noise around 6 a.m Tuesday, came out with his wife and saw people completely drenched in mud. He said he immediately began treating people.

 “I helped around 10 people. Many had lacerations and bruises,” he said.

He said he helped one elderly couple whose neighbors’ garage was pushed through their bedroom by the mudflow.

He said the mud picked them up and tossed them into the closet.

“They weren’t expecting it. One minute they’re sleeping and the next they’re being dragged by mud. Miraculously, they survived,” he said.

La Tuna Canyon Road in Sunland remains closed

A woman trudges through mud piled on La Tuna Canyon Road after checking on her neighbor whose house was blocked by a mudslide that struck the area. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
A woman trudges through mud piled on La Tuna Canyon Road after checking on her neighbor whose house was blocked by a mudslide that struck the area. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Santa Barbara County

About 300 people still stuck in Romero Canyon; rescue operations will resume at daybreak

Hot Springs Road in Montecito on Tuesday morning. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
Hot Springs Road in Montecito on Tuesday morning. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

About 300 people remain stuck in their homes in Montecito’s Romero Canyon neighborhood after impassable roads halted rescue operations, officials said.

First-responders plan to launch aerial rescues at daybreak for those residents, all of whom are safe.

“So far there isn’t a concern about anybody being in any potential danger in that area,” said Rosie Narez, a spokeswoman for the multiagency storm response. “There’s no way in or out, so I mean, at some point … you’re going to run out of stuff, so you’re going to need help.”

Authorities said the residents are in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Santa Barbara County

After frantic search, mother and daughter are reunited in Montecito

Sally Mobraaten arrived at Santa Barbara City College in a frenzy Tuesday night.

The 56-year-old Goleta resident had already called 911 and driven around for a few hours looking for her 86-year-old mother, whom firefighters had evacuated from a Montecito condo. 

Mobraaten was nearly in tears as she spoke with a Red Cross volunteer. 

“I’m not sure where she could be,” the volunteer said. 

Determined to find her ailing mother, Mobraaten hopped back inside her white SUV and headed toward Vons on Coast Village Road, where the National Guard had been dropping people off. 

Along the way, she called called hotels in Santa Barbara. No luck. Despite police roadblocks on the streets, she forged ahead. 

Soon after, she pulled into the Vons parking lot and glanced around. Still no sign of her mom.

But then, she spotted an elderly woman wearing a red rain coat and a white hat. 

She breathed a sigh of relief and shouted: “That’s my mother!” 

With the engine of her SUV still running, Mobraaten jumped out, ran to her mother and gave her a kiss.

“I’m happy I found you, Mom,” she said as members of the National Guard helped them put her mother’s suitcase inside the car. 

Sally’s mom, Cynthia Mobraaten, wore a huge smile. 

Inside the car, Sally joked with her mom: “I’m so jealous you got to ride in a military vehicle…. I want to hear all about it.” 

“I bet my butt is still muddy,” her mom replied, chuckling. “I didn’t let you get your beauty sleep tonight I guess.”

At one evacuation shelter, a makeshift message board helps people search for loved ones

 (Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

At the evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, someone taped up a white poster with the words “message board” scrawled in black. 

Written below, in blue, was “Augie & Karen Johnson,” with a question mark in front of their names. 

Other names, also next to question marks, filled the page, which turned into a makeshift forum for people to search for loved ones. They left their phone numbers on yellow sticky notes asking strangers to please call, sometimes telling the missing that they loved them. 

“He is OK,” someone wrote next to one crossed-out name.

Isacc Cervantes painstakingly checked each sticky note and piece of paper attached to the board, hoping to hear about his former co-worker Larry Lopez, who lives in Montecito.

Cervantes went through the parking lot a couple of times looking for Lopez’s truck and scoured the shelter, but wasn’t able to find him.

Cervantes met Lopez three years ago while the two worked together at UC Santa Barbara. Lopez was a mechanic and has since retired.

“From what I heard, where he lived is, like, totally gone now,” Cervantes said. “He doesn’t really have anybody that talks to him. He’s shut off from everybody.... I just wanted to see if he was here.”

Cervantes had been out for a drive with his wife and baby when he came to check the shelter.

“I just want to find him and make sure he’s OK,” he said. “I had to check.”

Santa Barbara County

Oprah trudges through shin-deep mud after powerful rainstorm pummels her neighborhood

Oprah Winfrey offered prayers Tuesday to her neighbors in Santa Barbara affected by a powerful rainstorm that sent mud and debris flowing through neighborhoods recently under siege by wildfire.

In an Instagram post, the media mogul said she woke up to a blazing gas fire and then found shin-deep mud in her backyard. 

The post included video of her trudging through the debris, before she pans up to show that the “house in the back is gone.” 

“What a day! Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara,” she wrote. “Helicopters rescuing my neighbors. Looking for missing persons. 13 lives lost.” 

Winfrey made headlines recently after delivering an inspiring speech at the Golden Globes that led many to speculate about a possible 2020 presidential run. 

Santa Barbara County

After a river ran through her front and back yards, her chickens found refuge on top of a car

Susan Moe's chickens were perched on rubble she said was on top of a car. (Susan Moe)
Susan Moe's chickens were perched on rubble she said was on top of a car. (Susan Moe)

It was about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday when Susan Moe and her husband woke up to what they thought was the sound of a roaring river. 

So, they got up and checked.

“We looked out at our front yard and there was a river,” she said. “We looked at our back yard, and it was a river.”

She said the sky was glowing red. Somewhere, a fire had broken out. 

“It was really disturbing,” she said. “We didn't know what to do, so we decided to stay and shelter in place.”

By 4:30 a.m., firefighters came to escort them out of their home; a gas line had ruptured across the street, according to Moe.

The couple returned to devastation. 

“Other people's trees were in our yard,” Moe said. “Our mailbox was gone. Our neighbor's house has a big crack.... Homes were red-tagged.”

Her chicken coop had been swept away. The chickens, however, were perched on rubble Moe said was on top of a vehicle.

Around town, people are learning of the number of people — neighbors — who are missing and injured.

“It feels like this was way worse than the fire,” Moe said.

Santa Barbara County

'It looked like a World War I battlefield': First-responders faced challenges rescuing residents

 (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
(Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies issued mandatory evacuation orders Monday for 7,000 people, and voluntary advisories for 23,000 others.

Though some residents cooperated, many chose to stay in place, said Sheriff Bill Brown. 

Between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., sheriff’s dispatchers handled more than 600 calls from people who were distressed, stranded in their homes or cars and in need of rescue.

When daylight came, mud that was knee-deep or higher made it difficult for rescuers to access many of the affected areas.

“It looked like a World War I battlefield,” Brown said. “It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere with huge boulders, rocks, downed trees, power lines, wrecked cars — lots of obstacles and challenges for rescue personnel to get to homes, let alone get people out of them.”

At least several dozen homes were damaged or destroyed. Brown said he had declared the mudslide area a rescue zone and asked that onlookers stay away. 

Crews rescued 50 people by air and dozens more by ground, with about 500 firefighters responding from across the state. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 300 people were still waiting to be rescued from Romero Canyon. 

At least 20 people — four of whom were in severe or critical condition — were treated for storm-related injuries, said Dr. Brett Wilson, emergency department director at Cottage Health in Santa Barbara. 

Hospitals were already busy because of the recent surge in flu cases, and about 230 employees couldn’t go to work Tuesday because of road closures due to the storm, said Ron Werft, president and chief executive of Cottage Health.

After heeding evacuation warning, Carpinteria family returns to flooded home

Maude and Ben Boersema live near a creek by Foothill Road in Carpinteria with their young daughter and son.

Maude took the kids and left their home about noon Monday for a relative’s house, and Ben came back to check on the house. They knew the house, which they’ve had about five years, had flooded in the 1960s after a fire and that engineers had changed the course of the creek to try to prevent that from happening again.

The drizzle was so light into the early evening Monday that Maude considered coming back. But Ben heard the cracking, like thunder, and got in his truck and left around 4 am.

“I was scared,” he said. “As soon as I heard trees breaking in half and felt the house shaking, I was out.”

They came back early Tuesday to find their whole living room flooded. They have floor-to-ceiling windows, and about 3 feet of muddy water came through the bottom of the door.

They felt lucky it wasn’t much worse. They’ll lose their now-buckling — and brand new — wood floors. But the house is mostly OK.

Their neighbors had already cleaned the mud and water out by late morning with their tractors and good, old-fashioned legwork.

“All our neighbors are so kick-ass,” Ben said, nodding at neighbor Peter Lapidus as he maneuvered his tractor up a flooded and muddy Foothill Road.

Maude and the kids were gone for about 11 days  during the mandatory fire evacuations as the Thomas fire burned about a quarter mile from their home in December. Ben stayed behind at the house they’ve spent years refurbishing.

“He’s put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this house, and he clearly isn’t ready to see it go yet,” she said.

“It’s a natural disaster,” she said, “but we live in paradise 99% of the time.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Foothill Road in front of their house was impassable, covered with a thick sludge of mud, rocks and downed trees.

Closures

Avoid the 101 Freeway through Montecito. Officials say it will likely be closed until Thursday

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