Flood and mudslide survivors told to go
LOS ANGELES Most residents of mudslide-ravaged Montecito are under orders to clear out as the search for victims drags on and crews labour to repair power, water and gas lines as well as cleaning up massive piles of debris.
Even those who didn’t lose their homes in the disaster, which left at least 18 people dead, were told yesterday to leave for up to two weeks so they wouldn’t interfere with the rescue and recovery operation.
It was another frustrating turn for those living in the Southern California town, which 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 were lucky their home wasn’t ruined and they were all healthy and safe, though her daughter lost one of her best friends.
But she said it was stressful, after evacuating three times during the wildfire, to be packing up a fourth time and looking at spending up to US$3000 (NZ$4100) 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 the town had third and fourth homes. ‘‘Financially that’s a bur- den.’’
More than 1200 workers have poured into the town of about 9000 residents for the search and cleanup effort.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said residents who had stayed behind or tried to check on damage in neighbourhoods where homes were levelled and car-sized boulders and trees blocked roads and littered properties had hindered the recovery effort.
Brown has expanded what was known as the public safety exclusion zone to incorporate most of the town. This means that even those who stayed behind will have to leave, and people who enter the zone will be subject to arrest.
Residents who remained in town yesterday were either packing up their cars with clothing and other belongings for their latest evacuation, or staying out of sight.
‘‘It is a little frustrating,’’ said Sarah Ettman, who planned to leave today. ‘‘It’s martial law here, basically. You know there are looters being caught, and there are so many gawkers and people that just have no business being in here.’’
The body of the 18th victim, Joseph Bleckel, 87, was found dead in his home near Romero Canyon, Brown said. The cause of his death was not announced, but all the other victims died from multiple traumatic injuries due to a flash flood and mudslides.
Brown named the five people still missing, who include Fabiola Benitez, the mother of Jonathan Benitez, a 10-year-old killed in the flooding.
On a positive note, the drenching rains that unleashed the deadly torrents managed to finally contain the largest wildfire in California’s history, which burned for weeks above Montecito and stripped the steep hills of vegetation, making them prone to mudslides.
The United States Forest Service announced yesterday that the Thomas fire, which burned 1140 square kilometres, was now fully GETTY IMAGES contained.
While Montecito is best known as a getaway for the rich and famous – the median house price among current listings is more than US$4 million (NZ$5.5m) – there are also many working families living in modest houses and apartments. With most utilities out of commission or about to be cut off, staying behind is not an option for many.
Ettman’s home was undamaged, and her section of town still had gas and electricity.
However, ‘‘you’re losing all your basic health and sanitation services’’, Ettman said. ‘‘When those go down, you have to leave.’’ AP
Travis Zehntner comforts Teresa Drenick among the belongings of her sister, Rebecca Riskin, who was killed in a mudslide, in Montecito yesterday.