Frustrations, tragedy mount for California mudslide town
MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — Frustrations and dark discoveries mounted for a California town ravaged by a deadly and destructive mudslide.
Most of the people of Montecito, a town usually known for its serenity and luxury, were under orders to stay out of town as gas and power were expected to be shut off Saturday for repairs.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown on Thursday expanded what was known as the public safety exclusion zone to incorporate most of the town. That meant even those who had stayed behind would have to leave and those who entered the zone would be subject to arrest.
"It is a little frustrating," said Sarah Ettman, whose home was undamaged and whose section of town still had gas and electricity. "It's martial law here, basically."
However, with most utilities about to be cut off and sewage running into the nearby creek, she decided to heed the order to leave.
"I mean you're losing all your basic health and sanitation services," she said. "When those go down, you have to leave."
It was another difficult turn for those living in the Southern California town that has been subject to repeated evacuation orders in recent weeks, first because of a monster wildfire last month, then because of downpours and mudslides.
Cia Monroe said her family was lucky their home wasn't ruined and they were all healthy and safe, though her daughter lost one of her best friends.
But Monroe said it was stressful after evacuating three times during the wildfire to be packing up a fourth time. A family had offered them a room to stay overnight, but then they were looking at spending up to $3,000 a week for a hotel.
"Where do you go when you're a family of four and you don't have a second house?" Monroe asked, noting that some residents of town have third and fourth homes. "Financially that's a burden."
While Montecito is best known as a getaway for the rich and famous — the median home price among current listings is more than $4 million — there are also working families living in modest houses and apartments.
More than 1,200 workers taking part in the search and cleanup effort flooded into the town with a population of about 9,000.
A backhoe scooped up mud and rocks around buckled and flattened homes, while bulldozers cleared roads of tangled trees, muck and boulders. Tanker trucks were being used to haul off floodwaters sucked up from U.S. Highway 101, the crippled coastal route connecting Santa Barbara to Ventura.
Brown said the recovery effort has been hindered by residents who had stayed behind or tried to check on damage in neighborhoods where homes were leveled and car-size boulders blocked roads and littered properties.
Rescuers were busy probing thick muck, swollen creeks and tangled trees with poles in search of seven missing people while dogs sniffed for bodies.
A crew found the body of the 18th victim, Joseph Bleckel, 87, before noon in his home near Romero Canyon, Brown said. It was the first death discovered since Wednesday.
The cause of Bleckel's death wasn't announced, but all other victims died from multiple traumatic injuries due to a flash flood and mudslides.
The seven missing people included Fabiola Benitez, the mother of Jonathan Benitez, a 10-year-old killed in the flooding.
Benitez lived with her sister-in-law, Marilyn Ramos, 27, who was asleep with her daughter, Kaelly, 3, when mud crashed through their Montecito rental home, carrying both to their deaths.
"My sister was such a good person, she only thought of others to the point that she would cry with you when you were hurt or sick," said Ramos' sister, Jennifer Ramos, pausing to sob for several seconds.
The husbands of both women and the 2-year-old son of Fabiola Benitez, were hospitalized with injuries, Ramos said.
Drenching rains that unleashed the deadly torrents managed to finally contain the largest wildfire in state history, which burned for weeks above Montecito and stripped the steep hills of vegetation, making it prone to mudslides. The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that the fire that burned 440 square miles (1,140 square kilometers) was fully contained.
Melley contributed from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, John Antczak, Michael Balsamo and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles and Aron Ranen in Montecito contributed to this report.