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15 dead, hundreds trapped in devastating California mudslides

Some 15 people are dead in California’s Santa Barbara County following devastating mudslides in the area stripped by recent wildfires.

Mud fills a street after a rain-driven mudslide destroyed two cars and damaged property in a neighborhood under mandatory evacuation in Burbank, California, January 9, 2018. Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

More than two dozen people remain unaccounted for, leading officials to warn that the death toll will likely rise as emergency workers make it into damaged homes.

“It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere, with huge boulders, rocks, down trees, power lines, wrecked cars – lots of obstacles and challenges for rescue personnel to get to homes,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff, Bill Brown said.

One man, Thomas Tighe, told a local news station that he witnessed two cars traveling sideways in the street through a “river of mud.” Another said the mud came “in an instant, like a dam breaking.”

On Wednesday morning, 300 people were trapped in the Romero Canyon area of Montecito because debris was blocking their way out of the neighborhood, Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Yaneris Muniz said.

“We can’t get to them, and they can’t get to us. … Once we have daybreak, you will see helicopters start rescuing people there,” Muniz said.

As the storm hit hard between 3 and 6 a.m. on Tuesday, sheriff’s office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for assistance, Brown said.

Debris litters the area near a home on Tuesday, January 9, 2018 in Montecito in Santa Barbara County

US 101 in parts of Montecito and Santa Barbara will remain closed for at least 48 hours, authorities said on Tuesday.

By Tuesday, more than 5.5 inches of rain had fallen in parts of Ventura County over two days, the National Weather Service said. In Carpinteria, nearly 1 inch fell in 15 minutes, the agency said.

Thomas Tighe told CNN affiliate KCAL he was outside his Montecito home and heard “a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was … boulders moving as the mud was rising.”

He saw two cars moving sideways down the middle of the street “in a river of mud.”

Peter Hartmann said the destruction was everywhere.

“There were gas mains that had popped, where you could hear the hissing,” he told the TV station.

“Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants.”

Before the storm hit, Santa Barbara issued mandatory evacuations for 7,000 people, including in parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, which are below areas scorched by wildfires, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said.

“While some residents cooperated with the evacuations, many did not. Many chose to stay in place,” said Brown, the sheriff.

Sheriff deputies spent Monday conducting door-to-door evacuations for 7,000 people in a mandatory evacuation area. But the area where homes were destroyed, south of Highway 192, was not in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Rescue personnel still have areas to search, Brown said.

“It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere, with huge boulders, rocks, (downed) trees, power lines, wrecked cars — lots of obstacles and challenges for rescue personnel to get to homes,” Brown said.

Ben Hyatt said a river of mud crashed through a neighbor’s house in Montecito, a community of about 8,000 east of Santa Barbara.

“Apparently, one of their cars ended (up) in their backyard. We have neighbors at (the) top of the street that evacuated to their roof,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said his Montecito house was “surrounded by mud,” and a washing machine had drifted into his front yard.

“Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking. (It) surrounded the house, 2 to 3 feet,” he said.

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