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Death toll rises to 13 after floods, mudslides in Southern California

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Scene from the 300 block of Hot Springs Road in Montecito following debris and mud flow due to heavy rain on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

MONTECITO, Calif. — At least 13 people were killed Tuesday when a rainstorm sent mud and debris coursing through Montecito neighborhoods and left rescue crews to scramble through clogged roadways and downed trees to search for victims.

The deluge that washed over Santa Barbara County early Tuesday was the worst-case scenario for a community that was ravaged by the Thomas fire only a few weeks earlier. In just a matter of minutes, pounding rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito and flooded a creek that leads to the ocean, sending mud and massive boulders rolling into residential neighborhoods, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesperson Mike Eliason.

At least 25 other people were injured, authorities said at an afternoon news conference. Crews rescued 50 people by air and dozens more from the ground.

The deaths came after a heavy band of rain struck around 2:30 a.m., causing “waist-high” mudflows, Eliason said.

The mudslide struck a section of the city that is south of the Thomas fire’s burn area and was not subject to a mandatory evacuation, Eliason said. Rescue personnel have yet to even make it north of Highway 192, which is closer to soil scorched by last month’s wildfire. Burned areas are less capable of absorbing water, making them even more susceptible to flooding and mudslides.

Officials had no estimate on how many people could be trapped or how many homes were damaged. The search for survivors was still underway Tuesday afternoon.

The founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura was among those killed early Tuesday morning when a powerful mudslide swept him and his wife from their Montecito home.

Roy Rohter was identified by officials at Thomas Aquinas College, from which his daughter graduated in 2000. His wife, Theresa, was rescued and is in stable condition, officials said.

Emergency crews spent the first hours of light making rescues in voluntary evacuation zones near Montecito Creek north of U.S. Hwy. 101.

The U.S. Coast Guard also sent rescue helicopters into the area Tuesday morning, hoisting several people from collapsed homes or rooftops that stood above swirling mud and water. Rescue personnel were also able to save a young boy who was swept more than half a mile south from his house after the building was lifted from its foundation in Montecito, authorities said.

The boy was found alive under a U.S. Hwy. 101 overpass, authorities said. But his father remains unaccounted for.

The highest preliminary rainfall total appeared to register at roughly 5 inches in a gauge north of Ojai in Ventura County, in the burn area of the Thomas fire, which forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles. With heavy showers still forecast, flash flood warnings remained in effect for Santa Barbara County and southern Ventura County through Tuesday afternoon, according to the NWS.

Santa Barbara County officials evacuated nearly 7,000 residents from foothill communities shortly before the heaviest surge hit the area, according to Kelly Hoover, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

In Los Angeles County, there was “mudslide activity” on Country Club Drive in Burbank, where police ordered evacuations of all homes east of Montana on Tuesday morning. The Burbank Police Department released footage of water surging across a roadway and urged people not to attempt to drive over it. Some vehicles were picked up and moved by the surge, and a few homes suffered minor damage, but no one had been injured as of 1 p.m., according to Sgt. Derek Green, a Burbank police spokesperson.

Surges also washed out Topanga Canyon Boulevard north of Pacific Coast Highway, and sections of the 110 Freeway were closed because of flooding.

International travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport also had to be diverted from Terminal 2 on Tuesday morning, after the customs area became flooded, the airport said on Twitter. ”

“I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions,” said Dominic Shiach, 50. “It’s actually way worse than I thought it was going to be.”

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