Up to 43 people still missing in Montecito; dead include four children

Rescue crews continued to search Thursday for survivors amid the mud and wreckage of Montecito’s massive debris field, but acknowledged that the window to save lives is rapidly closing.

Up to 43 people remain unaccounted for following Tuesday’s massive mudflow, though officials said that number is highly fluid.

Earlier Thursday, officials placed the number of missing at eight. They increased that number after authorities combed through social media posts and message boards at evacuation shelters. Others who were found, or identified among the dead, were crossed off.

“It’s a constantly moving number,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, adding that he expected the death toll to rise.

The mudslide killed at least 17 people and destroyed scores of homes. Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office released the names of the dead, who were all Montecito residents.

They were identified as Jonathan Benitez, 10; Kailly Benitez, 3; Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48; David Cantin, 49; Sawyer Corey, 12; Peter Fleurat, 73; Josephine Gower, 69; John McManigal, 61; Alice Mitchell, 78; James Mitchell, 89; Mark Montgomery, 54; Caroline Montgomery, 22; Marilyn Ramos, 27; Rebecca Riskin, 61; Roy Rohter, 84; Peerawat Sutthithepn, 6; and Richard Taylor, 67.

The county coroner has listed the cause of death for each victim as “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire.”

Brown said authorities are expanding mandatory evacuation zones in the area because pedestrians and traffic are hindering rescue and repair operations.

People within the following boundaries were ordered to leave: the ocean to the south, Hot Springs Road to the west, the forest to the north, and Ladera Lane and Ortega Ridge Road to the east. Officials said they could be out of their homes for up to two weeks.

In the parking lot of the Vons shopping plaza on Coast Village Road, dozens of Montecito residents waited while sheriff’s deputies compiled a list of addresses.

They had emerged from their houses to buy supplies — including water, since their tap water was not safe to drink. Some said they came to the plaza in caravans organized by the sheriff’s office.

Yet after they loaded purchases into their cars, they were told they could not return home because the streets needed to be clear of traffic for workers clearing the debris.

Laura White lives next to the creek that overflowed near Olive Mill Road. She lost electricity, gas and heat after rushing water came up to the creek’s rim, carrying trees in its current.

She didn’t leave when authorities ordered her to evacuate for the Thomas fire. And she didn’t heed the mandatory evacuation order this time. She figured she could escape quickly. She grew up in Finland, where self-reliance in extreme weather is ingrained.

Yet when she saw cars washing down the creek, she looked away — she didn’t want to know what else was in there.

She has been piling on layers of jackets at night, since her house has no heat. She can’t boil tap water, since she has no gas. She knows she is fortunate.

“It’s one of those things where everyone else’s house burns down, and yours doesn’t,” said White, 68.

First responders have searched about 75% of the debris field left by a torrent of boulders, detritus and muck, Brown said.

“It is a massive operation that we have underway, still in the search and rescue mode ... but as we transition and will transition to a recovery mode, we realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and for our community,” he said.

Emergency crews rescued three people Wednesday, using helicopters to reach residents trapped in canyon areas that were rendered inaccessible by mud, downed power lines and fallen trees.

Much of the focus of Thursday’s search was on areas rescue crews had been unable to reach earlier, said Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the multiagency response team handling the disaster.

Hundreds of people who were trapped but not injured in the slides, such as those stranded in Romero Canyon, were taken to safety on Wednesday, she said.

In some cases, the deluge seemed to split families as well as homes.

Fabiola Benitez, 28, was swept away along with her husband and two children when her house was leveled during Tuesday’s deluge, according to Lori Lieberman, a family friend. Benitez’s husband and older son were rescued and are hospitalized in stable condition, Lieberman said, adding that Benitez and her 9-year-old son remain missing and are feared dead.

Roy Rohter, the founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was swept from his home alongside his wife, school officials said. Rohter did not survive; his wife was rescued and is said to be in stable condition, the college said in a statement this week.

Rebecca Riskin, a Montecito real estate agent, also was identified as one of those killed, according to a statement issued by her firm. She is survived by her husband and two children, the statement said.

The surge destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings in Montecito and washed out a 30-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway. The roadway will remain closed until at least Monday from Highway 150 to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara as crews work around the clock to clear the area of mud, cars and other debris. On the stretch of the freeway by the Montecito Inn, several feet of mud and rubble collected in the road.

“It looks like a swamp — there’s so much stuff down there,” said Jose Gonzalez, a road crew worker stationed by a bridge over the 101. “Some of the locals think there’s probably bodies in there. I hope not.”

Nearly 60 single-family residences were destroyed in Montecito, and 446 others sustained damage, according to an update published Wednesday night by the multi-agency team responding to the devastation. An additional 1,500 homes remain threatened.

The debris field also cut off gas, electricity and water to much of the area. A boil-water notice remains in effect for the Montecito Water District, officials said, and rescue personnel are concerned that those who survived the slide but remain trapped soon could run dangerously low on supplies.

From above, the debris flow appears as a near-endless swath of brown, interrupted occasionally by the roof tiles of inundated homes and clouds of smoke from smoldering structures. In a rescue helicopter that was surveying the damage, National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Sean Quillin said the shock and speed of the mudslide had left nearly every survivor shaken.

Times staff writers James Queally in Los Angeles and Melissa Etehad in Montecito contributed to this report.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Follow @brittny_mejia, @MattHjourno, alenetchek and @cindychangLA for updates on the mudslides in Montecito.


UPDATES:

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with an interview with a resident.

8 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing throughout.

5 p.m.: This article was updated with updated figures for missing people and other information from an afternoon news conference.

2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with the names of the dead.

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the hazards faced by rescue teams.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about rescue teams reaching previously inaccessible areas and descriptions of damage as seen from the air.

This article was originally published at 8:25 a.m.

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