At least 17 dead in California mudslides, death toll expected to rise

Berkeley Johnson and his wife had just climbed to the roof of their Montecito home after boulders and mud smashed into the building -- a result of the deadly California mudslides -- when the couple heard the muffled, desperate sound of a baby crying.

Johnson and his wife dug through four feet of mud, eventually pulling the baby from the depths of the mudslides, which have already killed 17, with many people unaccounted for as of Wednesday afternoon.

"We don't know where it came from but we got it out, got the mud out of its mouth," he told KSBY-TV. "I hope it's okay. I'm glad we got it out but who knows what else is out there."

The baby was taken to a local hospital for treatment, but its condition remains unknown at this time.

In another rescue captured on social media, a mud-caked 14-year-old girl was pulled from a collapsed Montecito home where she'd been trapped for hours.

"I thought I was dead for a minute there," the dazed girl could be heard saying on video posted by KNBC-TV before she was taken away on a stretcher.

The death toll from the mudslides in California unleashed by a powerful winter storm is expected to rise Wednesday as rescuers continue to dig through the destruction caused by powerful mud flows that swept away dozens of homes.

Around a dozen people remained missing Wednesday night, according to the Santa Barbara County sheriff.

A spokeswoman for the county, Amber Anderson, said earlier, "We have no idea where they're at. We think somewhere in the debris field," adding that damage is spread over 30 square miles.


More than a half-inch of rain fell in five minutes on Tuesday, officials said.

"Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference. He said there are "at least several dozen homes that have been either destroyed or severely damaged, and likely many other ones are in areas that are as-yet inaccessible."

An abandoned car floats in flooded waters and debris on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito.

An abandoned car floats in flooded waters and debris on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County FD)

Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, an upscale community located just outside Santa Barbara, said Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos.

The wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres. The region was threatened last month by the state's largest wildfire in modern history, which led to vegetation being burned off. Burned-over zones susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth doesn't absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.

"It sounded like a freight training coming down the hill, you could hear these boulders rolling down, the whole house was shaking,"  Carpinteria resident John Livergood said.


Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because of heavy rain in the forecast for the first time in 10 months.

Evacuations were ordered beneath recently burned areas of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. But only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.

U.S. Highway 101, the link connecting Ventura and Santa Barbara, looked like a muddy river and was expected to be closed for two days.

Montecito and neighboring Carpinteria are beneath the scar left by the Thomas Fire, which erupted Dec. 4 and became the largest ever recorded in California. The blaze spread over more than 440 square miles and destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.