Cal­i­for­nia mud­slide takes lives of el­derly, young; 5 miss­ing

The Citizens' Voice - - Commentary / Nation - BY CHRISTO­PHER WE­BER AND BRIAN MEL­LEY

MON­TECITO, Calif. — The old­est vic­tim swept away in a Cal­i­for­nia mud­slide was Jim Mitchell, who had cel­e­brated his 89th birth­day the day be­fore. He died with his wife of more than 50 years, Alice.

The youngest, 3-year-old Kailly Ben­itez, was one of four chil­dren killed.

As their names and those of 14 other vic­tims were re­leased Thurs­day, crews kept dig­ging through the muck and rub­ble look­ing for more peo­ple.

“At this mo­ment, we are still look­ing for live vic­tims,” Santa Bar­bara fire Capt. Gary Pit­ney said. But he con­fessed: “The like­li­hood is in­creas­ing that we’ll be find­ing bod­ies, not sur­vivors. You have to start ac­cept­ing the re­al­ity of that.”

The Mitchells were in love with their home in the sea­side en­clave of Mon­tecito where they moved in 1995, ac­cord­ing to their daugh­ter. They also loved their dog, Gigi, who is miss­ing.

The other chil­dren killed were 6-year-old Peer­awat Sut­thithepn, 10-year-old Jonathan Ben­itez and 12-year-old Sawyer Corey. None of the adult dead shared their last names.

All of the dead were killed by “mul­ti­ple trau­matic in­juries due to flash flood with mud­slides,” author­i­ties said.

Five peo­ple were miss­ing as of early Fri­day, down from as many as 43 a day ear­lier, said Am­ber An­der­son, a spokes­woman for Santa Bar­bara County.

Sher­iff Bill Brown gave the larger num­ber Thurs­day but cau­tioned that many or most of those peo­ple may sim­ply have been un­reach­able to the fam­ily and friends who re­ported they couldn’t find them.

“We were able to find peo­ple,” An­der­son said, but added that the num­ber could con­tinue to fluc­tu­ate greatly . She said some miss­ing-per­son re­ports are quickly cleared but oth­ers take time to re­solve.

Pit­ney said many res­cues were still hap­pen­ing Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, but most if not all were of peo­ple who were safe but just wanted to get out of the area.

Among the searchers were more than a dozen fire­fight­ers who climbed through rub­ble in the back­yard of a man­sion that had been torn apart. Some res­cuers used poles to probe the muck for bod­ies, while oth­ers waded chest­deep in the mire. Two black Labrador re­triev­ers swam around a de­bris-filled swim­ming pool, try­ing to pick up any scent.

Crews marked places where bod­ies were found, of­ten far away from a home, and used that in­for­ma­tion to guess where other vic­tims might have ended up as the surg­ing mud car­ried or buried them.

The mud­slide, touched off by heavy rain, took many home­own­ers by sur­prise early Tues­day, de­spite warn­ings is­sued days in ad­vance that mud­slides were pos­si­ble be­cause re­cent wild­fires had stripped hill­sides of veg­e­ta­tion that nor­mally holds soil in place.

The dis­as­ter was al­ready un­fold­ing when Santa Bar­bara County of­fi­cials sent out their first cell­phone alert at 3:50 a.m. County emer­gency man­ager Jeff Gater said of­fi­cials de­cided not to send one sooner out of con­cern it might not be taken se­ri­ously.

As the rain­wa­ter made its way down­hill with gath­er­ing force, it pried boul­ders from the ground and picked up trees and other de­bris that flat­tened homes, cars and car­ried at least one body a mile away.

From an aerial view, the com­mu­nity that is home for celebri­ties such as Oprah Win­frey and Jeff Bridges looked like two vastly dif­fer­ent places.

Trashed ar­eas were awash in a sea of mud, with only the tallest trees stand­ing and some homes buried up to their roofs. Next to some of the dev­as­tated ar­eas sat large es­tates un­touched by the tor­rent, their lawns still green and the land­scap­ing lush.

Af­ter a bet­ter look at the dam­age, of­fi­cials low­ered the num­ber of de­stroyed homes from 100 to 64 and raised the num­ber of dam­aged ones from 300 to 446.

Searchers had checked most of the de­bris zone for vic­tims and some were dou­bling back to leave no stone un­turned Thurs­day when a crew ended up in the back­yard of Bill Asher, who lost his pala­tial home and a sim­i­lar one he was restor­ing next door.

Asher re­turned with a pickax and five friends and trudged through the de­bris to sal­vage any pos­ses­sion he could find.

He was still shaken by his har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence Tues­day with his preg­nant wife and two young chil­dren as the vi­o­lent gusher ar­rived with a deaf­en­ing rum­ble.

“I looked out my front win­dow and saw my car fly by,” he said. “I screamed at my fam­ily and wa­ter started com­ing into the house. Win­dows went fly­ing, doors went fly­ing.”

The fam­ily rode out the storm un­harmed on kitchen coun­ters as the de­bris smashed through the walls and wa­ter swirled around them.

Asher’s re­turn to the scene, where murky wa­ter was knee-deep, turned up at least one gem: his wife’s en­gage­ment ring, the only keep­sake she wanted him to find.


Emer­gency crew mem­bers search an area dam­aged by storms in Mon­tecito, Calif., on Fri­day.


A work crew cleans up an area of High­way 101 that flooded in Mon­tecito, Calif., on Fri­day.

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