Death toll rises to 17 in massive Montecito mudslide; crews continue search for the missing

Update Thursday, 7:50 a.m.

Only 8 people remain missing after days of search and rescue efforts; 17 were missing Wednesday. Seventeen people have died, and another 28 were injured, according to a morning incident update. Go here for Thursday’s updates.

Update, 4:50 p.m.

Montecito Water District officials also warned the public during the 4 p.m. news conference that there is “very limited water supply.”

“We currently have a very limited water supply. We have no water currently in storage,” said Nick Turner, general manager of the water district. “We do have customers who are without water, primarily in the upper Toro Canyon area and also along upper parts of the district boundary.”

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He said Summerland has water, but the district has reduced deliveries from Jameson Lake, thought to be the result of a main break between the lake and the Doulton Tunnel. At least three main breaks have been identified in the system.

The Montecito Water District is urging anyone who has water to limit it to essential use only and to boil water as a precautionary measure, though there are no known instances of contamination.

Update, 4:10 p.m.

The death toll in the mudslides and flooding has risen to 17, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said during a 4 p.m. news conference.

The Sheriff’s Office is not yet releasing the names of victims. About 17 people remain missing, authorities said.

“I just had the opportunity to take a flight over the area with the National Guard, and what we saw, even though we have been working this incident for several days now, is it was still very stunning to see the extent of the devastation — to see the breadth of the area that has been impacted so terribly,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

“As we transition to recovery mode, we realize this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us,” Brown added.

Three more people were rescued from the mudslide area Wednesday morning. And all 300 people who were trapped in Romero Canyon were evacuated Tuesday night.

Many of those who needed help being evacuated were hoisted to their safety. Sheriff Bill Brown said hundreds of people have been rescued from the mudslide and flooding zone since Tuesday.

Brown added that people who are living in areas impacted by the floods should leave for their safety.

Ron Werft, CEO of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, says there are no new storm victims at the hospital and that “all of our patients in the hospital have been connected with a family member or close friend.”

Cottage Hospital received 20 patients from the storm on Tuesday, and some have been discharged. Twelve patients remain in the hospital, four in critical condition. Most of the injuries were related to “fast-moving debris,” officials said.

More than 500 emergency responders and 10 search dogs continue to work on the search-and-rescue effort.

Authorities say there is a new phone number for the family assistance center. If you need help looking for loved ones affected by the flooding and mudslides, the new phone number is 833-688-5551. The center is located at the First Presbyterian Church at 21 E. Constance Ave. in Santa Barbara. The center will remain open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Friday.

Update, 1 p.m.

About 100 single-family homes were destroyed and 300 were damaged in Santa Barbara County flooding and mudslides, the Associated Press reported.

Update, 10:30 a.m.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, whose district includes all of Santa Barbara County, issued the following statement regarding deadly mudslides and flooding:

“My heart breaks for our neighbors in Montecito. My thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives were lost and their loved ones, who are recovering from injuries, as well as with residents who are unable to return home,” Carbajal said.

“Rebuilding in the wake of two unprecedented tragedies will not be easy, but I have absolute faith that our community’s spirit of service, which we have already seen in such force after the Thomas Fire, will carry us through.”

Carbajal also thanked first responders for their work in rescue and recovery efforts.

Original story

The death toll has risen to 15 after heavy rains forced mud and debris through Montecito, downing power lines, destroying homes and closing Highway 101 indefinitely.

“Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Dozens of people were rescued from cars and homes Tuesday, but there are still many more reported missing. Santa Barbara County has opened a center to help people looking for their loved ones.

Most of the deaths occurred in and around Montecito, the Associated Press reported. The area is home to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe.

Winfrey’s home survived the mudslides. In an Instagram post, the star showed video of her walking in mud past her ankles in her backyard, as well as an image of an early-morning gas fire she said she woke up to on Tuesday.

“Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara,” Winfrey wrote. “Helicopters rescuing my neighbors. Looking for missing persons.”

Authorities had been preparing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because heavy rain was forecast in the area for the first time in 10 months, the Associated Press reported. Though mandatory evacuations were ordered, only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in a mandatory evacuation zone in Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, according to the Associated Press.

Thomas Tighe told the Associated Press he stepped outside his Montecito home in the middle of the night and heard “a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was … boulders moving as the mud was rising.” Two cars were gone from Tighe’s driveway and he watched two more move down the middle of the street, through a river of mud.

Tighe also told the Associated Press he saw a body pinned by mud against his neighbor’s home. He wasn’t sure who it was.

Highway 101 is expected to remain closed until at least Thursday night, as crews work to clean debris, water and mud from the road. Train service is stopped south of Santa Barbara — the tracks are blocked by rubble. Pacific Surfliner didn’t have an estimate of when tracks would be clear, but didn’t expect them to be open by Wednesday.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office declared a public safety exclusion zone in the affected areas to help responders with rescue and recovery efforts. Residents can shelter in place, but are not allowed to move around the area.

The county also said most parts of Montecito would be without natural gas service, and it may take several days to restore. The area will also be without “potable water, electricity, and sanitation for an unknown/extended period of time due to the storm.”

An evacuation shelter is set up at Santa Barbara City College. Residents can call 211 for more information, or visit