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Three still missing in Montecito as crews scramble to clear debris and mud

The search continued for possible victims along Highway 101 at Olive Mill Road in Montecito on Tuesday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A line of government officials spent Tuesday evening reassuring Santa Barbara residents that an army of workers, dump trucks and excavators was working to return their battered community to normal, though it may take some time.

The community meeting at a local junior high school came ahead of possible rains on Thursday, which are expected to drop just 0.1 to 0.2 inches of water in the area. While California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said Tuesday the rain could slow cleanup efforts and impact an already-destroyed landscape, those leading the meeting struck a more hopeful tone.

“This rain will give us the first test, but we believe the creek systems can handle this next rain,” Tom Fayram, the deputy public works director for Santa Barbara County, said in a community meeting Tuesday.

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He said that workers have made good progress clearing debris out of creek channels that run down the steep hills above Montecito, opening the channels so rainwater can run down the creek beds and not into the streets. The rain is not expected to be significant and “may actually be beneficial” because it will test how well workers have cleared the channels of debris, he added.

“We don’t know the full extent of the capacity of our drainage system,” Fayram said. “But we will find out. We will find its weaknesses, and we will fix it.”

It is vital, though, to clear the debris before the next big storm hits. Fayram pointed out that during Santa Barbara’s historic flood season in 1995, two storms struck: one in January and another in March.

“No matter what Mother Nature throws at us in the future, we will be here and we will deal with that,” he said.

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Three people are still missing after last week’s deadly rains caused mud and debris to crash through homes in Montecito, killing at least 20 people and destroying more than 120 homes. Some evacuation orders remain in place.

Search crews with cadaver dogs are still searching areas hit by debris flows. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said during the meeting that finding the missing was the “highest priority right now” for the rescue and recovery effort.

Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28, 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa and John “Jack” Cantin, 17, remain missing. All are from households where other family members died, Brown said.

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Brown read a note from Kim Cantin, Jack’s mother. She and daughter Laura survived but her husband, David Cantin, died in the mudflow.

“We are still looking for our son Jack,” she wrote. “Lauren and I know we were saved by the grace of God. As Lauren and I heal, I ask that you all pray that we find my son Jack.”

A stretch of the 101 Freeway remains closed from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara, made into a river by water and debris, and officials could not say when it would reopen.

The task requires not just removing mud, but also surveying for more damage underneath the muck. County officials said many water lines broke in the mudslide and there is still water flowing onto the highway, complicating cleanup efforts.

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Tim Gubbins, district director for Caltrans District 5, said opening up the freeway is a top priority for the state agency.

“We will get that highway open, and it will be in a safe condition for travelers,” he said. “It is hard for us to tell exactly when.”

A multi-agency local assistance center, for residents who have lost driver’s licenses or other documents, opened Wednesday at the Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara.

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Panzar reported from Montecito, Kohli from Los Angeles.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


UPDATES:

12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the missing people

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This article was originally published at 11 a.m.


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