Ar­du­ous search for miss­ing amid masses of de­bris

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Michael Balsamo Michael Balsamo is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

MON­TECITO, Santa Bar­bara County — Crews dug away at masses of mud, boul­ders and de­bris with earth-mov­ing ma­chines and shov­els Satur­day, hop­ing to find seven peo­ple still miss­ing in a mud­slide dis­as­ter that al­ready has killed at least 18 peo­ple.

The army of searchers and re­cov­ery work­ers in Mon­tecito swelled to more than 2,000 five days af­ter a pow­er­ful storm swept in from the Pa­cific and dumped a del­uge on moun­tain slopes above the coastal en­clave that were burned bare by a huge wild­fire in De­cem­ber.

The back­break­ing work went on un­der the sunny skies that have made the stretch of Santa Bar­bara County coast about 90 miles north­west of Los An­ge­les a haven for the wealthy, celebri­ties and tourists drawn to its scenery and ca­sual vibe.

“We have to do what­ever it takes,” said Capt. Tom Hen­z­gen, leader of a team from the Los An­ge­les Fire Depart­ment.

Much of the com­mu­nity of 9,000 re­mained un­der manda­tory evac­u­a­tion orders, even un­scathed ar­eas, as crews re­moved de­bris and worked to re­store wa­ter, power and gas. All warn­ings and orders for neigh­bor­ing Sum­mer­land and Carpin­te­ria were lifted.

Tanker trucks sucked muddy wa­ter from flooded sec­tions of U.S. 101, the only di­rect ma­jor artery be­tween Los An­ge­les and the Santa Bar­bara re­gion and an im­por­tant route for many peo­ple who work in the Santa Bar­bara area but live down the coast in Ven­tura County.

The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion aban­doned an es­ti­mate of re­open­ing the high­way on Mon­day and said it was not known when the clo­sure would end.

Am­trak, which be­gan restor­ing rail ser­vice two days af­ter the flood, was adding cars to trains be­cause of heavy de­mand. Two boat com­pa­nies that nor­mally take tourists out to Chan­nel Is­lands Na­tional Park and on whale-watch­ing ex­cur­sions were fer­ry­ing peo­ple be­tween the Ven­tura and Santa Bar­bara har­bors.

On land, lo­cal, state and fed­eral agen­cies were con­duct­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ous re­cov­ery ef­forts, the Santa Bar­bara County Pub­lic Works Depart­ment said. That in­cluded clear­ing roads, drainage chan­nels and de­bris basins that are in­tended to catch mud­flows.

In the dis­as­ter im­pact zone, searchers used chain saws and rakes to re­move logs and sift through the rem­nants of what was left of mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar homes. Crews with back­hoes and jack­ham­mers pul­ver­ized enor­mous boul­ders that were left when the tor­rents stopped.

Or­ange mark­ings left on doors in­di­cated which homes had al­ready been searched.

Mar­cio Jose Sanchez / As­so­ci­ated Press

Crews pump mud off of High­way 101 in Mon­tecito (Santa Bar­bara County). The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion does not yet know when the key high­way will re­open.

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