At least eight dead in Southern California flooding, mudslides

By Alex Dobuzinskis

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At least eight people died and thousands fled from their homes in Southern California on Tuesday as a powerful rainstorm triggered flash floods and mudslides on slopes where a series of intense wildfires burned off protective vegetation last month.

Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after thousands of residents along the Pacific coast north of Los Angeles were ordered to evacuate. But only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Fire Department.

Emergency workers, using search dogs and helicopters, have rescued dozens of people stranded in rubble, Anderson said. At least 25 people were injured.

Photos posted by the fire department showed a teenager covered in black mud being led away from the rubble of a house that had been destroyed by the Montecito mudslide. The girl had been trapped in the home for hours before rescuers came to her aid, the department said on Twitter.

Other pictures posted online showed piles of debris coated with deep, brown mud in residential areas.

The death toll marked the largest single-day loss of life during a California mudslide since Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people died as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (32 km) south of the latest disaster.

The rains subsided on Tuesday, but forecasters warned of more rain throughout the day. Rainfall totals ranged from 2 inches to 4-1/2 inches (5 to 11 cm) in the area, the National Weather Service said.

The loss of life and damage in the area were devastating, particularly after the fires that forced people out of their homes only a month ago, said Dominic Shiach, a restaurateur who lives in Montecito with his family just outside the latest evacuation zone.

"It’s like a sucker punch," Shiach, who evacuated due to the fires but not the rains, told Reuters by phone. "Where are the frogs and locusts? We’re waiting for them."

Marjorie Robertson, who has lived in Montecito off and on for more than 40 years, evacuated during the fires and again on Monday ahead of the heavy rains.

"It’s just incredibly sad,” said Robertson, who was able to ride out both evacuations at a nearby hotel where she works.

At least eight people died from debris flows and rolling boulders in Santa Barbara County, the hardest-hit county in the region, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said in an email. She did not specify the cause of the fatalities, but said they occurred in several locations in Santa Barbara where there were mudslides.

The death toll could increase, as an unspecified number of people were unaccounted for in the county, Anderson said by telephone.

Television personality Ellen DeGeneres, who owns a home in the upscale community of Montecito, posted a photo on Twitter of a roadway choked with mud and brown water.

"This is not a river," DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. "This is the 101 freeway in my neighborhood right now. Montecito needs your love and support."

Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe are among the other celebrities who live in Montecito.

The threat of mudslides prompted the county to order 7,000 residents to leave their homes before the rains came and to urge 23,000 others to evacuate voluntarily.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College and also gave residents a place to take their animals.

A neighborhood in Montecito had not been put under mandatory evacuation orders before mud from a creek cascaded toward homes, Anderson said. She could not immediately say whether any of the fatalities were in the area that was not evacuated.

Last month's wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

The overnight rains forced road closures, including a 30-mile (48-km) stretch of U.S. Highway 101, essentially cutting off traffic between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties northwest of Los Angeles.

(Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)