California mudslides kill 17, more feared dead in deluge

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) - The death toll from devastating mudslides in affluent communities along a stretch of Southern California coastline rose to 17 on Wednesday after two more bodies were recovered, the local sheriff said, and the number of people missing also climbed to 17.

The two additional fatalities were discovered as some 500 rescuers using search dogs, helicopters and thermal-imaging equipment dug through waist-deep mud for victims or survivors of the mudslides, which were triggered by a heavy downpour early on Tuesday.

Three more people were rescued from the path of debris on Wednesday. None of the dead have been publicly identified.

RELATED: The most harrowing photos of the Southern California mudslides

12 PHOTOS
The most harrowing photos of the Southern California mudslides
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The most harrowing photos of the Southern California mudslides
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 09: Mangled cars are stuck near Olive Mill Road in Montecito after a major storm hit the burn area Tuesday January 9, 2018 in Montecito, California. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A search dog looks for victims in damaged homes after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Mud fills the interior of a car destroyed in a rain-driven mudslide in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A damaged car carried by mud flow, floats in flooded waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An abadoned car floats in flooded waters and debris on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Abadoned cars stuck in flooded water on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A section of the Union Pacific Railroad is blocked by mudflow and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A section of the Union Pacific Railroad is blocked by mudflow and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel search through debris and damaged homes after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 9: Mud and debris gather outside the Montecito Inn along Olive Mill Road in Montecito after a major storm hit the burn area January 9, 2018 in Montecito, California. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 9: A muddy Mark Olson stands along Olive Mill Road in Montecito after trying to save his house after a major storm hit the burn area Tuesday January 9, 2018 in Montecito, California. Olson had minor damage to his house. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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"We realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and our community," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters at a late afternoon news conference.

The walls of mud that roared through foothills and valleys sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest also destroyed 100 single-family homes, damaged hundreds of other buildings and injured 28 people, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

A major north-south highway along the coast, U.S. Route 101, was closed in both directions and not expected to reopen until next week.

Among the damaged properties were historic hotels and the homes of celebrities including television personality Oprah Winfrey and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who both live in the upscale hillside community of Montecito, known for its natural beauty and proximity to Los Angeles.

Verdant hillsides that had provided estates with a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last month's historic wildfires, making them vulnerable to the massive mud and debris slides that sent boulders crashing into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and shredded cars into tangles of metal.

 

THE SOUND OF DESTRUCTION

One resident of Toro Canyon described being awakened before dawn Wednesday when his home began shaking and he heard sounds like those of a freight train and snapping wood.

"What they were was a bunch of trees that were being snapped by the mud and boulders and debris that were sliding down Toro Canyon," Jonathan Reichlen, 45, who owns an urban landscaping company, said in a phone interview.

"I just kind of waited it out because I did not want to go down to Toro Canyon while ... the mudslide was actually going on," he said.

RELATED: Powerful mudslide rips through Southern California

50 PHOTOS
Powerful mudslide rips through Southern California
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Powerful mudslide rips through Southern California
A building uprooted by a massive mudslide is lodgedin a tree in Montecito, California, January 10, 2018. Rescuers used dogs and helicopters to search for victims of powerful mudslides which left at least 15 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey. Heavy rains sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month's ferocious wildfires. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - JANUARY 09: Mario Romero looks at mud debris covering Maricopa Highway 33 North of Ojai that has several closures due to mud and debris slides covering the roadway Tuesday morning as rain from the first significant storm system of the year is causing debris flows in recent burn areas across Southern California on January 9, 2018 in Ventura, California.. The storm is expected to bring unseasonably warm conditions, up to 4 inches of rain, snow, gusty winds and possible thunderstorms. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A damaged house is surrounded by large boulders and debris following mudslides due to heavy rains in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 10, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A damaged house is surrounded by large boulders and debris following mudslides due to heavy rains in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 10, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A semi-tractor trailer sits stuck in mud and flood waters on the highway after mudslides in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Picture taken January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: An abandoned car sits in mud following a mudslide on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A bulldozer clears mud from the northbound 101 freeway near Montecito after a massive mudslide in Montecito, California, January 10, 2018. Rescuers used dogs and helicopters to search for victims of powerful mudslides which left at least 15 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey. Heavy rains sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month's ferocious wildfires. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The north and southbound lanes of the 101 freeway near Montecito are covered in mud after a massive mudslide in Montecito, California, January 10, 2018. Rescuers used dogs and helicopters to search for victims of powerful mudslides which left at least 15 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey. Heavy rains sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month's ferocious wildfires. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A basketball is lodged between two fallen trees as Cal Fire inmmate crew searches for people still missing in the aftermath of a massive mudslide in Montecito, California, January 10, 2018. Rescuers used dogs and helicopters to search for victims of powerful mudslides which left at least 15 people dead in a southern California community that is also home to major celebrities including Oprah Winfrey. Heavy rains sent rivers of waist-high mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County northwest of Los Angeles, which are still recovering from last month's ferocious wildfires. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: A car sits in mud and debris on Highway 101 after a mudslide on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: Orange County search and rescue crews began looking for missing people along Olive Mill Road and Hot Springs Road on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 15 people have died and hundreds are still stranded after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: A member of the Los Angeles County fire search and rescue team rests with his dog while searching for mudslide victims on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 15 people have died and hundreds are still stranded after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: A Los Angeles County firefighter walks with his dog after searching through debris field from a mudslide on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 15 people have died and hundreds are still stranded after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - JANUARY 10: A resident carries her dog as she walks on a mud covered road after a mudslide on January 10, 2018 in Montecito, California. 17 people have died and hundreds hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged after massive mudslides crashed through Montecito, California early Tuesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Residents look on as a man clears debris from a mudslide in Los Angeles, California on January 9, 2018. The deadly storm claimed the lives of 13 people in Santa Barbara County. Flash flooding also occurred in the recently burned areas of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. (Photo by: Ronen Tivony) (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A search dog looks for victims in damaged homes after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Family members inspect the inside of a home covered in mud following the mudslides in Montecito, California, U.S., in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 10, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Boulders block a road after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A car washed downhill in a rain-driven mudslide are seen in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter (in yellow) instructs journalists to retreat to safer ground after a rain-driven mudslide destroyed two cars and damaged property in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists stand in ankle-deep mud after a rain-driven mudslide destroyed two cars and wrecked property in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Two cars washed downhill in a rain-driven mudslide are seen in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Mud fills the interior of a car destroyed in a rain-driven mudslide in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Emergency personnel inspect a damaged home on Hot Springs Road after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Abadoned cars stuck in flooded water on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A section of the Union Pacific Railroad is blocked by mudflow and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A section of the Union Pacific Railroad is blocked by mudflow and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A damaged car carried by mud flow, floats in flooded waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Debris floats in flooded waters on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An abadoned car floats in flooded waters and debris on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel rescue a 14-year-old girl from a house after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel search through debris and mud flow after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this still photo taken from video provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel search through debris and damaged homes after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Flash flood / massive amounts of mud swept thru #montecito oaks neighborhood. Mud buckling doors trying to get in h… https://t.co/gq6tlE8otg
Emergency personnel rescue people from rising flood waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department January 9, 2018. Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An overturned car is entangled in debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department January 9, 2018. Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel rescue a man from flood waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department January 9, 2018. Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Emergency personnel rescue people from flood waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department January 9, 2018. Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Unbelievable. This the 101 North in Montecito/Summerland. Completely blocked with mud. #CAStorm đź“ą: Joyce Dudley-San… https://t.co/rNZrTvQ7pl
Check out this mudslide blocking NB lanes of 101 between Carpenteria and Montecito. The highway is closed from Vent… https://t.co/tB9WrOlB2J
#BREAKINGNEWS: LAPD squad car spotted trapped by mudslide in La Tuna Canyon area. https://t.co/ZaWaafW8Jt
People trapped by mudflows across #Montecito roads. This is E Valley Rd/192 & Sheffield. Boulders, branches washed… https://t.co/TlPon3Qvxh
Debris covers the streets along Coast Village Road. #CAwx #CAstorm #SantaBarbara #Montecito https://t.co/TvKezRyX20
People being rescued from their homes in #Montecito. https://t.co/hcQH8wISyo
This is security cam footage of the explosion in #montecito https://t.co/gXj6as7N8S
#CAStorm - Firefighters rescue a girl who was trapped in Montecito following heavy rain and mudflow in the 300 bloc… https://t.co/www3MpwnXX
#CAstorm- Santa Barbara County Firefighter’s use a search dog to look for victims where multiple homes once stood i… https://t.co/5FIzMIOyFY
The national guard on Coast Village Road. Grateful for our first responders. #CAStorm https://t.co/zCVIHqQwG2
Mud fills a street after a rain-driven mudslide destroyed two cars and damaged property in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm demolished homes in southern California, authorities said Tuesday. Five people were reported killed. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
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Reichlen said he had emergency food supplies and water but no hot food and was trying to figure out a way to get safely out of the canyon.

It was the latest blow to a region still rebuilding after the wildfires.

"First we got burned out at our ranch that caught on fire and now we're flooding, so the last month has been pretty bad," said Charles Stoops, as he stood in front of his house, which was surrounded in mud 3 feet deep, or nearly a meter.

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

Helicopters were ferrying people out of the Romero Canyon neighborhood, where about 300 people were cut off after a massive debris flow blocked the road into the area.

The mudslides closed several historic hotels, including The Four Seasons Biltmore, which had just reopened on Monday after repairing wildfire damage. The courtyard of the 90-year-old Montecito Inn, built by silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin, was filled with a thick crust of debris driven by the slides.

The disaster followed a violent rainstorm that dumped as much as 6 inches (15 cm) of water onto areas northwest of Los Angeles.

Winfrey posted videos on Instagram showing her wading through nearly knee-deep mud on her Montecito property and later inspecting the damage.

"There used to be a fence right here. That's my neighbor's house. Devastated," she said.

Talk-show host DeGeneres posted a picture of a mud- and debris-filled street outside her Montecito home on Twitter, saying she did not yet know the condition of the house itself.

Former tennis star Jimmy Connors said in a tweet that he and his wife, Patti, had been evacuated by helicopter on Tuesday from their home in the posh hillside community.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (30 km) south of the latest disaster.

Last month's wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, which became the largest in California history, not only burned away trees, grass and shrubs that held soil in place, but also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

 

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)

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