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At least 20 dead in California, including children, in catastrophic mudslides
The death toll from Tuesday’s mudslides in Montecito, California, has now reached at least 20, including 4 children. Four people remain missing, including a 2-year-old girl.
Search and recovery efforts are ongoing.
20 dead, 4 missing
Heavy rains sent mud and debris coursing from the hills and into Montecito, a community just east of Santa Barbara, early on Tuesday, leading to the deaths of at least 20, ranging in age from 3 to 89. Among the dead are a pair of twin sisters and numerous couples who had grown old together — all swept away by the mud and engulfed in their sleep before sunrise.
The most recent body to be found was that of 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa, a Thai immigrant who was found on Saturday. His 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, remains missing.
Also killed were Sutthihepa’s 6-year-old son, Peerawat — his only other child — and his 79-year-old father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor.
Others left missing from the disaster are John “Jack” Cantin, 17; Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28; and John “Jack” Keating, 53.
Mourners gathered outside the Santa Barbara County courthouse on Sunday evening to remember the victims of the deadliest mudslide in California in the last 13 years. In 2005, ten people died when a mudslide buried the town of La Conchita, destroying some 65 homes and damaged hundreds of others.
A 10-mile stretch of the major highway U.S. 101 remains closed, buried in a “river of mud” that is five feet deep in places. Officials say it could be weeks before it is reopened, leaving residents and commuters scrambling for an alternate travel route.
Search and recovery
Tuesday’s mudslide has been attributed to the Thomas fire, which burned approximately 281,000 acres over more than a month before being declared fully contained on Friday. The blaze primed the hills for the mudslides by stripping them of vegetation that would otherwise have kept soils in place.
Rescuers have been combing through areas strewn with downed trees, power lines, and massive boulders in a desperate search for survivors, but authorities said on Sunday the search-and-rescue mission had shifted to a “search-and-recovery” effort.
“It is more than 130 hours since this tragedy occurred,” Sheriff Bill Brown said. “That necessitates the need to transition.”
Officials are also turning their focus on clearing debris from drainage basins and channels to mitigate further mudslides. Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Emergency Office, said the debris needed to be cleared as soon as possible to prevent another disaster.
“We have got to get those basins cleared as fast as we can,” Lewin said. “If we don’t get those debris basins cleared out, then we’re not going to be prepared for the next storm, and we don’t know what that storm is going to look like.”
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