California mudslides death toll rises with 13 still missing

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Hundreds of rescuers are combing wreckage in Southern California for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides that have killed 17 people.

Another 28 injuries have been reported in Santa Barbara County following the deluge that overwhelmed an area scorched by wildfires last month.

More than 100 homes were destroyed, and another 300 have been damaged.

One rescue worker tearfully described plucking a “muddy doll” of a toddler from under several feet of debris.

Berkeley Johnson said the two-year-old girl was taken to hospital and suffered an injury to her hip.

“I don’t know how the baby survived,” Mr Berkeley told the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper.

Mud-covered woman being lifted by four emergency respondersImage copyrightSANTA BARBARA NEWS VIA REUTERS
Image captionFire department workers rescued a woman from a collapsed house in Montecito

He said of his own home in the community of Montecito: “This was an hour of rain, and the house was gone.”

Mr Johnson said he and his wife, Karen, heard a baby crying after the flooding had subsided and they managed to climb down from the roof of their swamped home.

The pair joined a fireman to dig the toddler out, scooping mud from her mouth before she was taken to hospital.

“Had we not gone over there, I don’t think that kid would have [survived],” he added.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said 13 people remain missing. The death toll rose on Wednesday afternoon after two more bodies were found, he added.

More than 50 people have been rescued already but many places were still inaccessible. Several roads were closed, including the major Highway 101 which authorities say will not be reopened until Monday.

“We are still very much in active search-and-rescue mode,” said Chris Elms, a spokesman for Cal Fire, cautioning that the death toll may still rise.

“That’s a fear. We are still very hopeful that we will locate people alive,” he added.

Santa Barbara County spokesman Amber Anderson said: “We have no idea where they’re at. We think somewhere in the debris field.”

The upmarket neighbourhood of Montecito is home to celebrities such as actor Rob Lowe, chat show host Ellen DeGeneres and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.

On Instagram, Ms Winfrey said her property had escaped the worst as she toured the scene, but described the house next door as “devastated”.

The first rain in months caused mudslides when it hit ground that had been burned by December’s huge wildfires.

After a wildfire, burned vegetation and charred soil create a water repellent layer which blocks water absorption. Together with the loss of vegetation, this leads to an increased risk of mudslides and floods.

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