Difficult search goes on in California mudslides

Associated Press

MONTECITO, Calif.

Crews dug away at masses of mud, boulders and debris with earth-moving machines and shovels Saturday in a California town ravaged by mudslides, hoping to find seven people still missing in a disaster that has already claimed at least 18 lives.

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.

Long-range forecasts gave the crews about a week before the next chance of rain – and potential new mudslides – although the precipitation expected next Friday was expected to be disorganized and light. Another system was possible two days later.

Much of the community of about 9,000 remained under mandatory evacuation orders, even unscathed areas, as crews both removed debris and worked to restore water, sanitation, 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 region but live down the coast in Ventura County.

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

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.

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