Published January 13, 2015
Rescue workers, buoyed by word late Wednesday that everyone believed to be missing following a deadly mudslide has now been accounted for, continued to dig through a giant pile of mud and debris nonetheless, seeking to make sure that no one was overlooked.
The final three people on a list of those reported missing since the mudslide that killed 10 people struck Monday were finally accounted for late Wednesday night, said Capt. Harold Humphries of the Ventura County (search) Sheriff's Department. But he said rescue operations would continue nonstop well into Thursday to make sure no victims have gone overlooked.
Authorities believe that if anyone is still trapped in the debris, there is a chance they could be found alive.
Earlier Wednesday, as rescue workers searched for survivors, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) arrived at this picturesque seaside hamlet to survey the devastation. He promised residents the state would help them return to their homes.
After a helicopter tour, the governor also praised weary workers and residents who waited anxiously for news of missing family members and friends.
"We have seen the power of nature cause damage and despair, but we will match that power with our own resolve," Schwarzenegger said as he declared a state of emergency in Ventura County.
Since the mudslide struck the small coastal community on Monday, 10 bodies have been pulled from the debris. At the beginning of the day, authorities had a list of 10 people still unaccounted for, but by late Wednesday they said all of those people had been located.
Before dawn, rescuers found four dead family members of Jimmie Wallet (search), a resident who had dug relentlessly alongside rescue crews in search of his 37-year-old wife Mechelle and daughters Hannah Jade, 10, Raven Violet, 6, and Paloma Julie, 2.
"I'm very pleased with the hard work and all the effort in finding my family," Wallet said in a prepared statement.
Crews using trained dogs, cameras and microphones intended to keep searching for survivors then reassess the rescue operation on Thursday night.
"In ideal situations, if they are unhurt and in a void, they could be there for four or five days," said Ventura County fire Capt. Conrad Quintana, referring to open pockets amid the debris.
Throughout Southern California, five days of record-setting rainfall gave way to clear skies and typically mild temperatures. But it could be weeks before the region recovers from the storm that killed at least 28 people.
The devastation was most stunning in La Conchita (search), a free-spirited beach town with about 260 residents sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the hills south of Santa Barbara. Fifteen homes were destroyed and 16 were damaged.
Dozens of residents attended a morning meeting with county officials to get information on those still missing and word about when they might be allowed to return to their homes.
Sobs filled the room as Geoff Dean, chief deputy of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, read the names of the dead — the Wallet children and their mother first.
"Oh my God!" one woman gasped. Others clutched each other and cried.
A few moments later, Dean read a list of 10 people who hadn't been heard from. Sorrow turned to joy as four residents were discovered to be alive and well. Later in the day, authorities said only three people were still known to be missing.
Seventeen-year-old Danielle Munroe was sitting in the audience when she heard her name announced and tentatively raised a hand.
"Excuse me," she said. "I'm right here. Everyone in my house is all right."
Later, residents were allowed back into their homes to get some possessions. But officials had no estimate of when they might be able to return for good because rescue operations were continuing and there was concern about the possibility of another slide.
The meeting turned tense when several people challenged authorities about why there was no evacuation order before the mudslide.
"Who was in charge of deciding whether or not to evacuate?" asked resident Vera Long. "The questions are gonna have to get answered."
Dave Festerling, deputy chief of the Ventura County Fire Department, said he didn't know why there wasn't an evacuation order.
Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper previously said a sensor system of lasers and mirrors installed on part of the bluff gave no warning. There were no sensors on the top of the section that gave way, he said.
"So that's why there was no evacuation order for this area," Roper said. "We had no grounds for it. If we did, we would have ordered the evacuation."
He also said an evacuation of motorists was under way at the time but had nothing to do with the devastating mudslide. Another slide had occurred on nearby Highway 101, stranding hundreds of motorists who were being put aboard sheriff's buses to be driven out of the area, he said.
It was the second time the cliffs behind La Conchita had smashed into the community. In March 1995, nine homes were destroyed when some 600,000 tons of earth fell onto the town after a powerful storm.
Angry homeowners sued a blufftop ranch owner they blamed for weakening the bluff by overwatering avocado groves. La Conchita Ranch Co. settled the suit two years later for an undisclosed amount.
Others were mad at the county, which eventually put up a $400,000 retaining wall that collapsed immediately under Monday's slide. Officials said it had only been intended to stop debris, not another mudslide.
"We want a lot more help than we got 10 years ago," said Terry Judge, 57, who has lived in the town for 30 years and lost a good friend in this week's slide.
Other residents said they were not afraid to stay in La Conchita, even after Monday's catastrophe.
"Generations after generations have raised families here," said Jack Falk, 48. "We are in a beautiful part of the world, and we desire to live nowhere else in this country but right here."
Schwarzenegger said he would help make that happen.
"I am going to help them so they can come back here," he said. "We will do everything that we can to make it a safe area."
The state of emergency declared by the governor makes Ventura County eligible for government recovery funds.
College student Shaun Hart, 20, a lifelong resident, said people were hanging onto hope that more survivors would be found.
"I heard from a lot of my buddies who were there the day it happened that they could hear people screaming, people tapping on stuff, children crying," he said. "There are air pockets and there still could be people trapped."
Using special radar, crews found several open areas amid the debris but none had any people inside.
Workers using heavy equipment slowly made their way inward from the edges of the massive mound that covered several blocks and stood 30 feet high in some spots.
When they found household debris, they slowed and dug by hand while using cameras, listening devices and dogs to search for signs of life. Only a small percentage of the mound had been searched.
"It"s a very slow and methodical process," said Los Angeles County fire Capt. David Norman. "We can't just go in and start grabbing stuff."
Scattered in the mud were a variety of household items, including surfboards, dish towels, golf clubs and canceled checks. A pickup truck looked like it had been in an explosion. Other cars and mobile homes were crushed.
"It tears these cars up like they're toys." Los Angeles County fire Capt. Greg Cleveland said.