California mudslides death toll rises to 17, search and rescue operations continue

Montecito, California
An aerial view from a Ventura Country Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. (Ventura County Sheriff's Office/via REUTERS)

The death toll from the California mudslides that destroyed homes and covered roads with large amounts of debris and boulders has increased to 17, as rescue workers continue to work through the mud in search of people.

Authorities said that at least 28 others have been injured from the disaster, while 17 more individuals are missing. Around a hundred homes have been destroyed in the mudslides, while 300 were damaged. The massive debris flow also destroyed eight commercial properties.

Among those whose lives were lost in the mudslide was 84-year old Roy Rohter who was the founder of the St. Augustine Academy. He and his wife Theresa were swept by the debris flow from their home in Montecito. Theresa was rescued, but Roy did not survive.

Officials have yet to confirm the identity of the rest of the victims. According to Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason, there were children among the deceased.

Despite the rising death toll, rescue workers are confident that they will still be able to rescue those trapped in the debris. “Search and rescue is still very confident that we’re still in that window for rescue mode,” Eliason said. “We’re actively pursuing trying to get in there as quick as we can to get those people to safety.”

The mudslides have caused a number of roads to be closed, including the major Highway 101, making much of the affected areas inaccessible to the rescue workers. Because of this, authorities fear that the death toll could still rise.

The mudslides began around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday when heavy rains affected the hillsides that were previously scorched by the massive Thomas fire just a few weeks prior.

The intense rains overwhelmed the slopes above the affluent neighborhood of Montecito, flooding the creeks and sending a rush of mud and boulders into the residential community. Houses were ripped from their foundations, with some being taken away by the mudslide more than half a mile before being destroyed.

At least 7,000 people have evacuated the area, as rescue workers continue the search for survivors among the mud-covered debris. Authorities are also using helicopters to rescue people from inaccessible areas.