MONTECITO, Calif. – Emergency crews climbed and clawed through thick flows of mud and dangerous debris Wednesday in some of southern California's most exclusive neighborhoods, as the death toll from the collapse of rain-soaked hillsides rose to 17 people with more than a dozen others missing.
This neighborhood of gated homes and sloping streets just south of Santa Barbara has taken on the character of a Hollywood set, weeks after flames threatened the kind of destruction that mudslides have done in days. Wide swaths of ash and earth have smashed multimillion-dollar homes into pieces, filled hotel lobbies with muck, and blocked the main highway from Los Angeles for miles with mud several feet high.
But the human tragedy, which unfolded overnight Tuesday and continued Wednesday, far exceeded the emotional punch of the severe property damage. Whole families have been carried away by the mud. Rescued children who survived their parents remain in critical condition in a hospital whose staff is challenged by road closures and their own damaged property. At least 13 other people are missing.
As helicopters picked families off the roofs of their battered homes, community members branched out on their own in search of survivors and bodies, searching creek beds and canyons, runoff points at local beaches, and splintered piles of wood and stone that once were homes.
Churches became shelters for the thousands of evacuated people, who may have no place to live for months. Thousands of others are without water or power and may remain so for days.
Brenda Bottoms, a Montecito resident, described Wednesday the muddy handprints she saw on the sides of neighboring homes, which had been slammed and partly carried off by a fast-moving mudflow.
"This is a neighborhood," Bottoms said, tears running down her cheeks. "You know the family with five kids that live right over there. And now everything's gone."
The mudslides mark the cruel postscript to the Thomas Fire, which burned for much of December to become the largest wildfire by area in California history. For weeks before Christmas, flames scorched the steep hills above Montecito, squeezed between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, forcing 9,000 residents to evacuate.
Firefighters from across the state worked to save nearly all of Montecito's houses, an achievement that city residents describe as nothing short of a miracle given the intensity of the offshore winds and the ferocity of the fire that burned through tinder-dry brush and tree stands in a rainy season without rain.
The blaze left the mountains bare, especially along the slopes and in the canyons just above Montecito, a stretch running from near Westmont College to roughly Romero Canyon, where a few hundred residents were trapped temporarily by the mudslides.
Those neighborhoods, which include the homes of Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and other Hollywood stars, are now the most vulnerable. Evacuation orders were issued days before the predicted downpour this week, sparing many when the hillsides, no longer held together by brush and trees, spilled into the neighborhoods.
Santa Barbara County fire officials said Wednesday that 100 homes have been destroyed by the mudslides and another 300 damaged. Many more remain in jeopardy – fire officials say as many as 1,500 – but the weather could turn in their favor.
The National Weather Service forecasts sun and light wind through early next week, when work crews also expect Highway 101 will open again as it passes through Montecito. But periods of rain are predicted to follow.
One of the main arteries for the mud has been Hot Springs Road and Olive Mill Road, which join and run from the hills to the sea, passing Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, running over Highway 101 and ending at the exclusive Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club. Bodies have been found along its length, and a woman's remains were recovered on Butterfly Beach, just below the Coral Casino.
Things looked "apocalyptic" after the deluge, said Lindsey Reed, 33, who works as a bartender and server at the private beach club.
"It's terrifying, and you just have no control, and it's taking out everything in its path," she said.
Where Olive Mill meets Coast Village Road stands the Montecito Inn, a local landmark whose ground floor has been filled with mud and debris. Along Coast Village, the main business route in Montecito that runs parallel to Highway 101, businesses have been damaged. Fire officials said eight have been destroyed so far in the county.
Throughout Wednesday, residents who ventured outside witnessed the grim chore of search and rescue. Some crews had to be dropped into impassable areas by helicopter Wednesday, and the California National Guard has lent military vehicles that rescue officials say have proved invaluable.
Peter Hartmann, a dentist who lives in Santa Barbara and works in Montecito, watched crews gingerly dig through mounds of mud, unsure of what they would find. What they did discover was agonizing.
"A 2- or a 3-year-old girl had been pulled out of the mud by firefighters," said Hartman, 60, recounting what he saw. "She wasn't breathing yet, from what I understand from a neighbor who was there."
Hartmann said "it was just heart-wrenching" to see her small, mud-covered body emerge. He said he recalled thinking, "God, just let her live."
Rescue workers tended to her, cleaning the mud off her face. And as they cleaned her up, she started breathing.
"That firefighter actually broke down and cried after she was in the ambulance," he said.
Hartmann, a freelance photojournalist in his spare time, spent Wednesday traversing the area, mostly on foot with many roads closed or impassable. Some residents who ignored the evacuation orders were effectively cut off. He saw others trekking a mile to the supermarket, walking back with water bottles and food stuffed into their backpacks.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Hartmann came across another group of search-and-rescue workers digging in the mud, this time with a tragic result.
"I think they just found another body," he said. "The coroner came and took it away."
On Para Grande Lane, near the base of Cold Spring Creek, Boris Romanowsky, 59, shook his head Wednesday as he surveyed the damage. A former firefighter, Romanowsky could see what should have been done before the slides began.
"I knew that bridge should have been fixed about five years ago. That thing was a choke point," he said, pointing first to the bridge that was destroyed by the flooding, and then to the property adjacent to the bridge, where the walls showed a water line several feet off the ground.
"This house just sold," he said. "They just had a big estate sale about six months ago."
Romanowsky said the rush of the flood, coupled with harsh rains and a large gas explosion on the east end of town, made for a disorienting experience.
"The noise was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think," he said. "We had fire on the eastern sky before sunrise and we had this train wreck of a river going through at the same time, and we had rain so loud that you could hardly see."
Romanowsky said he's been checking in on his neighbors, many of whom, like him, still have no power or water. He said, despite the forecasts for more rain in the coming weeks, he has no plans to leave.
"I monitor on a transistor radio," he said. "I've been here since the first fire. I don't evacuate."
Ufberg reported from Montecito. Berman and Wilson reported from Washington. Avi Selk, Marwa Eltagouri and Julie Tate contributed reporting from Washington.