Recovery

At Least 13 Dead as Heavy Rains Trigger Flooding, Mudflows and Freeway Closures Across Southern California

The deluge that washed over Santa Barbara County early Tuesday was devastating for a community that was ravaged by the Thomas fire only a few weeks earlier.

by James Queally, Joseph Serna and Michael Livingston and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times / January 10, 2018

(TNS) — At least 13 people were killed Tuesday when a rainstorm sent mud and debris coursing through Montecito neighborhoods and left rescue crews to scramble through clogged roadways and downed trees to search for victims.

The deluge that washed over Santa Barbara County early Tuesday was devastating for a community that was ravaged by the Thomas fire only a few weeks earlier. In just a matter of minutes, pounding rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito and flooded a creek that leads to the ocean, sending mud and massive boulders rolling into residential neighborhoods, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.

At least 25 other people were injured, authorities said at an afternoon press conference. Crews rescued 50 people by air and dozens more from the ground.

“It’s going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area,” Eliason said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario.”

The deaths came after a heavy band of rain struck around 2:30 a.m., causing “waist-high” mudflows, Eliason said.

Late Tuesday, about 300 people remained stuck in their homes in Montecito’s Romero Canyon neighborhood after impassable roads halted rescue operations, officials said.

First-responders plan to launch aerial rescues at daybreak for those residents, all of whom are safe.

“So far there isn’t a concern about anybody being in any potential danger in that area,” said Rosie Narez, a spokeswoman for the multi-agency storm response. “There’s no way in or out, so I mean, at some point … you’re going to run out of stuff, so you’re going to need help.”

Authorities said the residents are in a mandatory evacuation zone.

The mudslide struck a section of the city that is south of the Thomas fire’s burn area and was not subject to a mandatory evacuation, Eliason said. Rescue personnel have yet to even make it north of Highway 192, which is closer to soil scorched by last month’s wildfire. Burned areas are less capable of absorbing water, making them even more susceptible to flooding and mudslides.

Officials had no estimate on how many people could be trapped or how many homes were damaged. The search for survivors was still underway Tuesday afternoon, with many places inaccessible.

Stationed in Hawaii for the Navy, Tyler McManigal, 28, was notified Tuesday that his father and brother were swept away by flooding in Montecito.

In a phone interview, he said he knew very little else about what happened.

McManigal said when the flash flood and mud flow began, his 64-year-old father, John, woke up and rushed over to wake up his brother, Connor, 23. The pair were unable to make it out of their home in the 300 block of Hot Springs Road, just north of Olive Mill Road.

The torrent of brown liquid mixed with branches, rocks, boulders and other debris carried away the family home — along with McManigal’s brother and father.

"They found my brother probably three-quarters of a mile away, south of where the house is, on the 101 Freeway," he said, adding that Connor was taken to a local hospital.

"My brother is OK,” he said.

But his father, who has six children, is yet to be found, said McManigal, who is trying to get back home.

The founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura was among those killed early Tuesday when a powerful mudslide swept him and his wife from their Montecito home.

Roy Rohter was identified by officials at Thomas Aquinas College, from which his daughter graduated in 2000. His wife, Theresa, was rescued and is in stable condition, officials said.

Friends remembered Rohter as an energetic leader and generous benefactor of the college.

“Roy Rohter was a man of strong faith and a great friend of Catholic education,” Michael F. McLean, president of the college, said in a statement posted on the school’s website. “He played a pivotal role in the lives of countless young Catholic students — students who came to a deeper knowledge and love of Christ because of his vision, commitment and generosity.”

Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of St. Augustine, said in a statement that Rohter “has done so much for so many people and pro-life and Catholic education causes. … Thousands have been blessed by the Rohters’ friendship and generosity.”

Emergency crews spent the first hours of light making rescues in voluntary evacuation zones near Montecito Creek north of U.S. 101.

In the 300 block of Hot Springs Road, crews rescued six people and a dog after four homes were destroyed. The mud lifted one home off of its foundation and carried it into trees, where it then collapsed, Eliason said. Firefighters used the jaws of life to cut their way into the home where a firefighter heard muffled cries for help from a 14-year-old girl, Eliason said.

A rescue dog pinpointed the girl’s location and two hours later, the mud-covered girl was pulled free. A second 14-year-old girl was also rescued from the same neighborhood and carried from ankle-high mud in a basket by half a dozen firefighters.

The U.S. Coast Guard also sent rescue helicopters into the area Tuesday morning, hoisting several people from collapsed homes or rooftops that stood above swirling mud and water. Rescue personnel were also able to save a young boy who was swept more than half a mile south from his house after the building was lifted from its foundation in Montecito, authorities said.

The boy was found alive under a U.S. 101 overpass, authorities said. But his father remains unaccounted for.

On Hot Springs Road on Tuesday afternoon, a dozen sheriff’s deputies carried a body on a gurney from a collapsed house as muddy water raced down the street. The deputies surrounded the body in silence for several moments before placing it gently into an emergency vehicle.

According to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles, the highest preliminary rainfall total appeared to register at roughly 5 inches in a gauge north of Ojai in Ventura County, in the burn area of the Thomas fire, which forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month. With heavy showers still forecast, flash flood warnings remained in effect for Santa Barbara County and southern Ventura County through Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

The 101 Freeway was shut down in both directions for more than 30 miles in the Thomas fire burn area because of flooding and debris flow, spanning an area from Santa Barbara to Ventura, according to the California Highway Patrol. Sections of routes 33 and 150 were also closed in Ventura County, according to the Sheriff’s Department. There was no estimate for when the roadways might reopen, a California Department of Transportation spokesman said Tuesday afternoon.

In Los Angeles, one person was killed when a big rig overturned in the northbound lanes of the 5 Freeway near Los Feliz, said Saul Gomez, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol’s Southern Division. All northbound lanes were closed as of 4 a.m., though Gomez said police were hoping to reopen the roadway by 8 a.m.

The victim, who was not identified, was approximately 60 years old, Gomez said. No one else was injured. While the accident happened as rain fell across Los Angeles County, Gomez said he could not confirm the crash was storm-related.

The fatal crash was one of hundreds that occurred during the downpour. Between 5 and 9 a.m. Tuesday, there were 275 traffic collisions reported on Los Angeles-area freeways, the California Highway Patrol said. There were only 30 during the same time period a week ago.

Santa Barbara County officials evacuated nearly 7,000 residents from foothill communities shortly before the heaviest surge hit the area, according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover.

About 3 a.m., she said, the storm became ferocious.

“We just had a deluge, a power surge of rain. And we had a report of a structure fire burning in the Montecito area, the San Ysidro area. And it just kept going downhill from there,” she said. “We have people stuck in their homes, stuck in their cars. There’s downed power lines, flooded roadways, debris.”

Hoover said the shutdown of the 101 Freeway was heavily hindering rescue efforts.

“There’s no way to get from Ventura here, no way for us to get south,” Hoover said. “We’re encouraging people to stay off the roads if they’re in an evacuation area.”

By 8:30 a.m., the county’s dispatch center had at least 50 calls pending, she said.

Santa Barbara County officials put a boil water notice in effect for the entire Montecito Water District on Tuesday afternoon.

In Los Angeles County, there was “mudslide activity” on Country Club Drive in Burbank, where police ordered evacuations of all homes east of Via Montana on Tuesday morning. The Police Department released footage of water surging across a roadway and urged people not to attempt to drive over it. Some vehicles were picked up and moved by the surge, and a few homes suffered minor damage, but no one had been injured as of 1 p.m., according to Sgt. Derek Green, a Burbank police spokesman.

The torrent of mud and debris sheared at least three fire hydrants, pumping another 130,000 gallons of water onto the debris flow, said Bill Mace, an assistant general manager of water systems for Burbank Water and Power. The department was able to cut off the pressure to each hydrant, but 14 homeowners will be without water for at least two days, Mace said.

Country Club Drive residents Allie Vonnacher, 17, and her mom, Heidi Donato-Fennell, 42, said they awoke to the sight of several cars flowing down the street, along with power lines, trees and mailboxes.

“It’s just surreal how powerful nature is,” Donato-Fennell said. “You just hope it stays contained in the street and it doesn’t become life-threatening.”

Surges also washed out Topanga Canyon Boulevard north of Pacific Coast Highway, and sections of the 110 Freeway were closed because of flooding. The Los Angeles Fire Department had to launch a swift-water rescue to aid a man and a dog trapped in rising water near the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, and a Los Angeles police cruiser became mired in a debris flow on La Tuna Canyon Road, according to authorities. The officer was uninjured and walked out of the vehicle. The cruiser was in the process of being dug out of the mud with a backhoe early Tuesday.

International travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport also had to be diverted from Terminal 2 on Tuesday morning, after the customs area became flooded, the airport said on Twitter.

The CHP also said heavy rains likely contributed to a crash that left one person dead on Highway 126 in Ventura County, about two miles from the Los Angeles County line, on Monday afternoon. One woman died and two others were injured in the five-car crash, the agency said.

The National Weather Service was reporting rainfall totals of up to 5 inches in Ventura County and 3.3 inches in Santa Barbara County as of 11 a.m. Nearly 1½ inches of rain had fallen in Bel-Air, which could be susceptible to mudslides and debris flow because of damage caused by the Skirball fire last month.

The storm spared some areas that were affected by last month’s blazes. Early Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders for neighborhoods in the burn areas of the Creek and Fish fires were lifted, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In Montecito, some residents said they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the morning mess.

“I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions,” said Dominic Shiach, 50. “It’s actually way worse than I thought it was going to be.”

Shiach wore a navy raincoat as he walked Archie, his 3-year-old West Highland terrier, down Sycamore Canyon Road on Tuesday morning.

Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Incident Management Team said there were about 75 people who called for evacuation help.

Marc Phillips realized he should have listened to emergency officials as he trudged down East Valley Road in mud-soaked jeans.

“They were right,” he said, pointing to a place where residences had been knocked from their foundations. “It looks like there was never a house there, but it was.”

Livingston reported from Montecito. Queally, Serna and Vives reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.


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