On Tuesday morning, within a matter of five minutes, Santa Barbara residents were plunged into chaos as nearly two inches of rain caused the drenched soil to become unstable, resulting in devastating mudslides.
So far, the death toll has risen to 13, but the number is expected to increase as rescue workers excavate tons of mud that has ravaged the upmarket communities of Montecito and Carpenteria in Santa Barbara County.
Rescue attempts began on Tuesday and carried on to Wednesday morning, with authorities now saying that the operations will become easier throughout the day as the massive rainstorm made its way westward, away from the city.
Enormous volumes of water gushed down in torrents and within five minutes had caused powerful mudslides that covered freeways, buried homes, flattened trees, overturned vehicles, and displaced hundreds of people.
According to Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown, the downpour far exceeded the city’s flash flood threshold. The sheriff also expressed hopes that the number of fatalities would not increase as rescue operations are ramped up.
“While we hope it will not, we expect this number to increase as we continue to look for people who are missing and unaccounted for.”
As reported by Reuters, emergency personnel were deploying search dogs and helicopters to assist in locating an unknown amount of people who are still trapped under rubble and compacted mud.
Over the past few weeks, the California coastline has been destroyed by raging wildfires, completely eliminating large swathes of vegetation. The roots of shrubs and trees are essential to the stability of soil, and experts believe that the recent decimation of the region’s flora is what likely caused the soil to turn to sludge and become dislodged.
Montecito and Carpenteria have thus far been the worst affected neighborhoods, but in a brief moment of good news, a 14-year-old girl was saved when a firefighter’s rescue dog heard the teenager call for help.
Young survivor Lauren Cantin told NBC News that she “thought I was dead there for a minute” after waiting six hours to be rescued.
Authorities believe that as many as 300 people were trapped in a canyon and were using U.S. Coast Guard helicopters to airlift them to safety.
According to ABC News, a family living in Carpenteria had to evacuate from their home last month due to the fires and had just moved back in when they were ordered to evacuate once again as a result of the heavy rains.
It was also reported that eyewitnesses saw some of their neighbors floating on mattresses while others were clinging on to trees to avoid being carried away by the rivers of mud.
Roughly 7,000 local residents were ordered to evacuate, while a further 23,000 were asked to vacate their homes voluntarily as a precaution. County officials directed those affected to the Santa Barbara City College hall where victims reportedly arrived covered in mud. Animals were allowed to join their families at the shelter.
Reuters also reported that the current number of fatalities already surpassed those who were killed in a similar event on January 10, 2005, in La Conchita.
The wildfires that devoured the Golden State’s landscape last month are reported to be the most devastating in California’s recorded history.