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 Olive 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 County Fire Chief Eric Peterson spoke about the difficulties and challenges faced by emergency responders in their search for survivors.
“I have felt the heartbreak of knowing that even with all of your skill and all of your training and all of your planning, you couldn’t save everybody,” he said. “No one could have planned for the size and scope of what a 200-year storm immediately following our largest wildfire could bring.”
Emergency crews remain in search-and-rescue mode, he said. However, he added, “after every hour it becomes less likely we will find someone alive, but there is always hope.”
U.S. Highway 101, a major north-south artery that carries 100,000 vehicles through the Central Coast each day, was initially expected to open Monday, but officials said cleaning up one part of the freeway was proving more difficult than imagined.
“It’s really an overwhelming situation and we don’t want to give an estimate that isn’t accurate,” said Colin Jones, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation.
Caltrans crews, aided by private contractors and the Army Corps of Engineers, have been working around the clock on an approximately two-mile stretch of the debris-strewn freeway near Montecito. Crews have removed most of the vehicles abandoned in the storm, including a number of tractor-trailers, but a significant amount of debris and mud remains.
The cleanup Saturday focused on what the agency calls “dewatering” — using pumps to suck up the mud and rainwater on the freeway. In a section of the road near Olive Mill Road — one of the lowest points in the city — there was 2 feet of standing water and storm drains were clogged, Jones said. Once all the mud and debris is removed, the pavement and overpasses must be evaluated for structural safety, and then signs and guardrails reinstalled and lines repainted, he said.
“Caltrans will get the 101 open,” he said. “We just don’t know when at this point.”
In addition to the 101, many local roads are blocked. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy said the big push on Saturday was to clean roads in the Santa Barbara and Montecito areas in order to improve vehicular access.
“As it stands, we’re still having to go in on foot in many areas,” he said.
State Route 192, which cuts across the foothills, is also unsafe in places, and officials are trying to establish an alternative route as soon as possible.
With the 101 closed, hundreds of people have taken to traveling the coast by boat. Two sightseeing companies, Island Packers in Ventura and Condor Express in Santa Barbara, have worked together to turn their vessels into a ferry service between the cities.
Tickets on the Condor Express, a 75-foot catamaran that normally takes tourists whale watching, were in high demand last week, with many trips packed with the maximum 127 passengers, assistant manager Katie Fitts said.
The 90-minute trip over the water was significantly shorter than the more than four-hour detour on the 5 Freeway, and ferry passengers included firefighters, city workers and medical personnel from Cottage Hospital, she said.
“There are people trying to get to their families that have been struck by this tragedy and people trying to get to work … surgeons and nurses,” Fitts said.
Ticket sales fell off Saturday after Amtrak restarted Surfliner and Coast Starlight service between Santa Barbara and Oxnard. The train trip between Ventura to Santa Barbara normally takes about 45 minutes. Trains were delayed two hours Saturday.
A spokeswoman said the delay “was due to adding capacity to accommodate an increase of customers.”
Meanwhile, business owners in Solvang — a favorite tourist stop of mostly western European-style hotels, bakeries and ranches just north of Santa Barbara — were in a near panic on Saturday as they watched sales revenues shrink to less than half of normal. For them, closing Interstate 101 seemed the equivalent of splitting the state in half.
Some hotels were even encouraging patrons from their largest market — the Los Angeles area — not to attempt the trip, which currently requires detours of up to 10 hours. Cancellations had become routine as word spread of the closure and some businesses and supermarkets had either reduced or halted restocking of inventories because they were not needed.
One of the region’s most famous resorts, San Ysidro Ranch north of Montecito, sustained extensive damage in the mudslides, McElroy said Saturday. The luxury hotel, which has counted Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill and honeymooners John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy as guests, is edged by a creek that became a torrent of boulders, toppled trees and muck.
Contractors and crews using earthmovers and dump trucks were streaming into the property Saturday morning. Elroy said many key structures on the property remained standing.
Around noon Saturday, more than four dozen Los Angeles County firefighters armed with shovels, pickaxes, chain saws and heavy-duty dumpsters descended on a debris-strewn location in the heart of the ranch property on a special mission: to rescue one of the oldest and most important adobe structures in Southern California.