How Many Missing? California Struggles to Grasp Scope of Mudslide Disaster

Articles Wall Street Journal

Huge debris piles, homes full of mud and rugged terrain have created what many workers describe as among the most challenging rescue efforts they have faced

MONTECITO, Calif.—Four days after a rainstorm unleashed mudslides here, sending house-sized boulders crashing into communities already worn down by a season of severe wildfires, officials and residents are still struggling to size up the scope of this new tragedy.

Search-and-rescue teams continued to comb through enormous debris looking for survivors and hundreds of officials fielded calls about the missing, in what many workers describe as among the most challenging rescue efforts they have faced. Parts of Montecito, where canyons weave in and out of rugged foothills, haven’t yet been reached.

The chaos, officials say, has created a disjointed process and caused the number of missing to swing wildly—from 48, to five, and back up to 43 within a 24-hour period. By Friday evening, officials said the number was back down to five missing people.

“We know that number is all over the place. It’s entirely possible it’s going to change again,” said Chris Elms, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who described the aftermath of the mudslides as similar to wreckage after a tsunami.

The number of dead is, for now, 18. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said search teams found the latest victim earlier Friday inside his home. Some of the bodies recovered had been swept for miles by the rush of mud.

“Victims were carried a long way. Some of the victims were very far from where they were first affected by this storm,” Pat McElroy, fire chief for the city of Santa Barbara, said in an interview Thursday.

Firefighters, dressed in yellow protective suits and rubber boots, used bulldozers and diggers to pull back giant piles of debris: chunks of mud, large boulders, trees torn out by the roots, cars, rubber hoses, tires, fire hydrants. Urban search-and-rescue teams in navy balloon suits pried their way into homes filled halfway or more with mud, guided by search dogs who, in some cases, were on second tours to make sure no ground is left unchecked. On the U.S. 101 freeway, the main artery between California’s central coast and Los Angeles, front-end loaders lowered firefighters into a river of mud and debris.

“We don’t want to leave anybody behind,” said Larry Collins, special operations deputy fire chief at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “There are such huge debris piles, and homes still full of mud, we have to physically dismantle those along the flood path.”

Also Friday, the largest wildfire on record in California was declared contained. The Thomas fire has been 100% surrounded after ravaging Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for more than a month.

Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, have been investigating the inundation of calls from family members and friends reporting missing loved ones, tracking social media and fielding reports from rescuers. Some of those reported missing were found at local hospitals seeking treatment for injuries.

“They are in a process of still taking calls. At the same time, they are making contact with people,” said Mr. Elms, the CalFire spokesman. “They are opening and closing cases at the same time.”

Homages to those killed revealed a tightknit community, where people’s lives intersected often.

Among messages of shock and grief came notes of admiration and thanks for victims including Mark Montgomery, an esteemed hand surgeon who died alongside his daughter, Caroline; and Rebecca Riskin, a partner in a real-estate firm that called her “Montecito’s beloved and respected luxury real estate maven.” Montecito’s youth grieved and prayed for the Corey sisters: Sawyer, 12 years old, was announced dead while her twin sister, Summer, and their mother recovered at the hospital. The twin’s older sister, Morgan, 25, is still missing.

Santa Barbara County officials on Thursday asked residents who remained in or had returned to homes marked for evacuation to leave. With many areas still without power, rubble covering many roads, and suspected gas leaks, officials said it was too dangerous for residents to remain in neighborhoods still being searched with military vehicles and heavy machinery.

At the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, volunteers were helping families looking for relatives, providing them with information on people listed as missing and offering counseling services. They said their makeshift center has been inundated with phone calls from people asking for information about the missing.

On Friday morning, the church was quiet until a couple walked in, searching for a man feared trapped under rubble. The man and woman said they were asking on behalf of his family, who lives out of town. Because they aren’t related, the volunteers could only offer to take down his name and explain how the search-and-rescue process and the alerting process work.

After a quick check, they confirmed that the man’s name was already on a missing-persons list. It was little solace for the couple, who walked out saying they weren’t sure whether this was good news or bad.