Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

On the fourth day of the treacherous search for victims of mudslides in Southern California, emergency workers found the body of an 87-year-old man in his house, authorities said.

The grim discovery came around noon on a day in which searchers were going through damaged and destroyed homes, sometimes for a second time.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Joseph Bleckel had been on the missing list but still the number of people unaccounted is five.

It was six at the beginning of an afternoon news conference, but someone called in to say one of the men on the list was at a hospital.




Emergency workers on the ground have doubled since Thursday, with about 1,250 trying to find and rescue those still trapped, Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Amber Anderson said.

All 18 people who perished were from the town of Montecito, and four were children:

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted
Kaelly Bebitez

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

10-year-old Jonathan Benitez,

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

3-year-old Kailly Benitez,

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

12-year-old Sawyer Corey

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Joseph Francis Bleckel, 87

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

David Cantin, 49

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Peter Fleurat, 73

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Josephine Gower, 69

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

John McManigal, 61

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Alice Mitchell, 78

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

James Mitchell, 89

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Mark Montgomery, 54

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Caroline Montgomery, 22

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Marilyn Ramos, 27

Richard Taylor, 79

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Roy Rohter, 84

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

Rebecca Riskin, 61

Peerawat’s father, Pinit Sutthithepa, and his 2-year-old sister, Lydia, are still missing. Taylor, Sutthithepa’s stepfather, was killed. Peerawat’s mother and grandmother were working when the mudslide hit and are safe, Caldwell said.

Jonathan was a fourth-grade student at Cleveland Elementary School in Santa Barbara.

He loved sports and played on the school’s flag football, soccer and basketball teams, said Angelique Barajas, 33, who used to work as an aide at his after-school program.

“He was a really sweet kid,” Barajas said. “He was always willing to help, and was a friend to everyone.”

His aunt Marilyn Ramos, 27, and his cousin Kailly Benitez, 3, were also killed.

6-year-old Peerawat Sutthithepn all lost their lives.

Death toll rises to 18 in Montecito as 7 remain unaccounted

The mudslides, which came in the early morning hours of Tuesday, killed at least 18 people and destroyed dozens of homes. Those killed ranged in age from 3 to 89, and all lived in Montecito in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, authorities said.

Rescuers have searched frantically for the missing after rivers of mud and boulders flooded through neighborhoods in and near Montecito, an affluent seaside community east of Santa Barbara, demolishing homes and leaving roads impassable.

“In disaster circumstances, there have been many miraculous stories of people lasting many days. We certainly are searching for a miracle right now,” Brown said Thursday.

“But realistically we suspect that we are going to continue to have discovery of people who were killed in this incident.”

Evacuation zone increased

The immediate areas where people were killed are under mandatory evacuation, and officials increased the size of the evacuation zone Thursday.

“We know that this a terribly inconvenient development, but it is also incredibly necessary,” Brown said.

“This entire area is a very active rescue and recovery and repair zone right now,” he said.

He said the zone, which includes areas formerly under voluntary evacuation advisories, would be in effect for one week but that residents should plan for two.

Rescue workers are using helicopters and all-terrain vehicles in a search hampered by blocked roads and downed trees and power lines.

Billy Grokenberger lives in a part of Montecito that was under a voluntary evacuation order. He and his parents put belongings in three cars in case they decided to leave before the storm. They didn’t.

“We had thought about leaving, but we had just had the fires,” he said, referring to the recent wildfires that stripped the area of needed vegetation. “… We didn’t take it serious(ly) enough.”

On the morning of the storm, Grokenberger watched as 2 to 3 feet of water streamed down the street.

“(In) four minutes the water was through our wall and in our house, almost to the second story,” he said.

“The house is destroyed, but you know, there’s just so many others who are less fortunate. But we just feel lucky that we were able to get out and (are) alive.”

Risk of mudslides for years

The storm hit hard between 3 and 6 a.m. Tuesday. The rain poured down on hillsides charred by recent wildfires, which burned vegetation that otherwise could make the terrain more resistant to mudslides.

The Thomas Fire — the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties from early December into this month. It wasn’t fully contained until this week.

Geologists and forecasters warned that intense rain could trigger deadly mudslides from the scorched areas.

And because of the fire, communities below the scarred terrain could remain at risk of mudslides for years, said Randall Jibson, a research geologist with the US Geological Survey.

Montecito may be at slightly less risk now, because this week’s flooding already brought down vulnerable material.

“(But) no storm brings down everything that is susceptible. There’s almost always more” that could come down, Jibson said.

What can be done? Long term, one option would be more basins to slow down storm runoff and collect debris.

Short term, making the public ready to evacuate during heavy rains is key, he said.

Montecito and Carpinteria are especially vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above sea level to sea level in just a few miles, said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County.

Mary Greeley Newswww.marygreeley.com

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