california mudslide deaths
© The Daily Mail
The victims' homes are split across the mandatory and voluntary evacuation zone. Most of the missing were swept away in the mandatory evacuation zone
Oprah's $50m estate is among the homes swallowed by 'river of mud' in upmarket neighborhood where many ignored warnings because of wildfire 'evacuation fatigue'

Seventeen people are dead, 24 are missing and at least 300 are trapped in mudslides which have torn the wealthy town of Montecito apart.

The death toll climbed on Wednesday as emergency workers pulled bodies from a river of knee-deep mud and boulders which rained down on homes after a torrent of rain earlier in the week. The debris was able to rush down on to the community because the hillside vegetation which would have ordinarily impeded it was stripped during the catastrophic wildfires last month.

Many residents put themselves in danger by not heeding mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders issued while there was still time to escape. Emergency services attributed the decision to 'evacuation fatigue' after last month's wildfires which drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.

As more unthinkable damage rocked the area, celebrities were among those who found themselves caught up in the chaos.

One of the dead was not killed in Montecito but died in Los Angeles County.

Authorities said that person's death was caused by the severe weather but they have not revealed how they died.

There are 24 people still missing and the death toll is expected to rise as authorities continue to recover bodies from the mud.

Oprah Winfrey's $50million home survived the damage and she was not home for the worst of it but she visited the site on Tuesday to share her shock and grief. Tennis star Jimmy Connors revealed to fans that he had to be airlifted out of his home to safety.

As they surveyed the damage, 300 people remained trapped in the hillside community of Romero Canyon which has become impassable. Authorities are working on an evacuation plan to airlift the hundreds of stranded residents to safety.

Officials said Wednesday that emergency cellphone alerts warning of mudslides weren't sent out until flooding was already occurring, the LA Times reports. The message, similar to an Amber Alert, was sent out at 3.50am, but it is not clear how many people got it.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Wednesday that his officers still did not know how many were trapped.

'We don't know how many people are still trapped. We know there are some, we're still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive,' he told CBS.

The first victims have been identified. They include fathers and husbands whose wives and children were rescued but they were swept away.

Among the missing are sisters Morgan Corey, 25, and Sawyer Corey, 12, who were asleep in their home when the mudslides hit.
California mudslide rescue
© NBC News
Dramatic images shows her being gently lifted from the twisted remains of the building - apparently having escaped major injury
The miraculous rescue of teenager Lauren Cantin, who was pulled from her crumpled home when firefighters heard her screaming, was crushed by the devastating news that her father, Dave, had been killed. As the scale of the damage begins to emerge, questions persist over why so many died in the devastation.

Many residents chose not to heed mandatory and voluntary evacuation zones in Montecito and were suffering from what emergency services called 'evacuation fatigue' after being forced to flee their homes as the Thomas wildfire threatened it last month. Montecito, where most of the deaths have been found, was split into mandatory and voluntary zones

California mudslides
© European Press Agency
Santa Barbara County Firefighters work amid flood waters and debris flow during heavy rains in Montecito, California, on Tuesday
Part of the answer lies in what emergency services have called 'evacuation fatigue', a complacency or refusal to heed their warnings after last month's catastrophic fires.

NBC cited officials who said they were worried residents would not take the mudslides as seriously and not leave.

Bridget Bottoms, a resident who chose to stay at home appeared to confirm their fears, telling The Los Angeles Times: 'It sounds foolish but it's like, "how bad can it get?".

Sheriff Brown confirmed on Wednesday that there were some who chose to stay behind despite warnings.

'There were some people who did refuse to evacuate and chose to stay in their homes, but there were many that did evacuate and they were safe because of that,' he said.

About 7,000 residents in Santa Barbara County were ordered to evacuate before the downpour on Tuesday, and another 23,000 were urged to do so voluntarily - but many remained.

Winfrey shared video of her home following the floods to let her followers know she was safe and her $50million home had survived the storm.

She stood in knee-deep mud and debris as she said a fence had been knocked town and that she was 'devastated' over the damage to her neighbor's house.

'Thanks everyone for your prayers and concern,' she said in the caption. 'My property is fine. Some mud , and minor damage that pales in comparison to what my neighbors are going thru.'

Winfrey previously shared a number of videos on Instagram showing the knee-deep mud in her yard, a gas fire nearby and helicopters rescuing her neighbors.

'What a day!' she said on the social media site as she filmed from her $50million estate in Montecito. 'Praying for our community again in Santa Barbara.

'Woke up to this blazing gas fire. then swipe left to see how deep the mud is in my backyard. Helicopters rescuing my neighbors. Looking for missing persons.'

Authorities have said it is still too early to say whether the mandatory evacuation order zone is worse affected than the voluntary zone.

'This isn't an exact science in terms of defining where [a mudslide] is going to "happen,". 'A lot depends on Mother Nature. This was their best guess estimate of where things were going to occur, and as it turns out, they were exactly right,' Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Tuesday.

Brown added that it was 'impossible' to say exactly where the mudslides have destroyed as they continue to work through the chaos.

Experts had been working 'feverishly' since the wildfires to avoid the very scenario they now face.

The county's Public Works Department deputy director said his team had done 'everything' they could to prevent it before the storm hit.

Former tennis star Connors told his Twitter followers that he had to be evacuated from his home by helicopter.

The upscale communities of Montecito and Carpenteria, just outside the city of Santa Barbara, were hardest hit. Over the past month California's scenic coastline was ravaged by a series of intense wildfires that burned off vegetation.

Mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles early on Tuesday when more than a half-inch (1.5cm) of rain fell in five minutes, a rate that far exceeds the normal flash flood threshold.

Officials said during a press conference that the death toll was 17.

The first confirmed death was Roy Rohter, a former real estate broker who founded St. Augustine Academy in Ventura. The Catholic school's headmaster, Michael Van Hecke, announced the death and said Rohter's wife was injured by the mudslide.

At least 25 people were injured in the mudslides and at least 24 others were unaccounted for as of Wednesday.

California mudslide rescue
© Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Firefighters rescue a 14-year-old girl who was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home in Montecito on Tuesday. Rescue crews worked for six hours using the jaws of life and other tools to free her from the mangled wreckage, but she walked away
On Tuesday, emergency workers using search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

Among those missing following the mudslides are sisters Morgan Corey, 25, and Sawyer Corey, 12. They were asleep in their home with Sawyer's twin sister, Summer, and their mother, Carie Baker, when the mudslide hit early Tuesday morning.

Baker and Summer Corey were later found by rescue teams and taken to hospital in critical condition. Friends and family have launched a social media search for Saywer and Morgan, whose whereabouts are still unknown.

Also missing are elderly couple Alice and Jim Mitchell. Family members are hoping to find them at an evacuation center, but they have not heard from the couple since the mudslide hit.

Father-of-six John McManigal, who was swept out of his home by flooding alongside his 23-year-old son, Connor, who was later found.

'My father is being reported as missing right now,' John's son, Tyler, who is stationed in Hawaii for the Navy, told the Los Angeles Times.

The 28-year-old added: 'They found my brother probably three-quarters of a mile away, south of where the house is, on the 101 Freeway.'

Rescue crews used helicopters to pluck more than 50 people from rooftops because trees and power lines blocked roads, dozens more were rescued on the ground and firefighters pulled mud-caked 14-year-old Lauren Cantin from a collapsed Montecito home where she had been trapped for hours.

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

Lauren's father, Dave Cantin, and brother, Jack, were said to be missing after the rescue.

Andy Rupp, Montecito Fire Department told NBC News: 'As we came off this debris pile in the back, my partner and I were able to hear a little bit of a scream, so we got real quiet - we were able to locate the victim and over the last six hours we've been locating exactly where she was.

'Digging down to her, with the help of a lot of tools we were able to free her out and she's on her way in to the hospital right now.'

Elsewhere in Montecito, a man dug a baby out of four feet of mud after hearing crying coming from the neighbor's house.

Berkeley Johnson and his wife, Karen, had climbed to their roof around 3am on Tuesday after mud and boulders crashed into their home.

After the flooding receded, Johnson heard the cries from the neighbors house, so he jumped into action and dug for feet through the mud to find the child, who was under a pile of rocks. It remains unclear who the child belonged to.

'We don't know where it came from but we got it out, got the mud out of its mouth. I hope it's okay.

'I'm glad we got it out but who knows what else is out there,' he told KSBY, holding back tears.

The first floor of the family's home was filled with four feet of mud, so the family was airlifted from the roof.

The death toll could increase when the search is deepened and expanded Wednesday, with a major search-and-rescue team arriving from nearby Los Angeles County and help from the Coast Guard and National Guard along with law enforcement. They'll focus first on finding survivors.

'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.

The sheriff said '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.'

He said it's likely they'll find more people amid that destruction.

Sheriff Bill Brown said that identities of those killed in the mudslides until family members had been notified.

California mudslide
© European Press Agency
A vehicle lies wrapped and tangled around a tree by the force of deadly flood waters on Hot Springs Road
Rescue personnel in Santa Barbara County early on Wednesday morning continued searching for victims and the death toll could rise.

'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,' Brown said.

The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep, fire-scarred Santa Ynez Mountains.

Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth does not absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.
california mudslide evacuation zone
© Google
Officials estimate that only 10 to 15 percent of the 21,000 people who were under mandatory evacuation orders actually left. The map above shows the mandatory (red) and voluntary (yellow) evacuation zones issued before Monday's storm
The torrent of mud early on Tuesday swept away cars and destroyed several homes, reducing them to piles of lumber.

'I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was ... boulders moving as the mud was rising,' said Thomas Tighe, who discovered two of his cars missing from the driveway in the middle of the night.'

'I saw two other vehicles moving slowly sideways down the middle of the street in a river of mud.'

In daylight, Mr Tighe was shocked to see a body pinned by muck against his neighbour's home.

Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after 7,000 residents in Santa Barbara County were ordered to evacuate and another 23,000 were urged to do so voluntarily, some of them for a second time since December.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

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 ten to 15 per cent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.

Sheriff Bill Brown said that a number of deaths and rescue missions occurred in voluntary evacuation zones, where about 23,000 live.

A 30-mile stretch of US Highway 101, the link connecting Ventura and Santa Barbara, looked like a muddy river and was expected to be closed for two days.
highway 101 California mudslides
© Reuters
An aerial photo showing north and south bound lanes of Hwy 101 on Wednesday
Two Santa Barbara boating companies launched emergency ferry services to help with travel due to the affected roadways. The Island Packers and Condor Express will offer service in the morning and afternoon for $32.

The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3.30am. Large boulders were washed out of a previously dry creek bed and scattered across the road.
California mudslides
© European Press Agency
A boulder blocks a road after heavy rains caused deadly mudslides.
The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on January 10, 2005, when the people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles south of the latest disaster.

Montecito is beneath the scar left by a wildfire that erupted on December 4 and became the largest ever recorded in California.

It spread over more than 440 square miles and destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures. It continues to smoulder deep in the wilderness.

The fire burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

A yearslong drought eased in the state last spring, but Northern California had a dry start to winter and hardly any measurable rain fell in the south over the past six months.

The extremely dry conditions and high winds last year led to some of the most destructive blazes on both ends of the state.

The storm walloped much of the state with damaging winds and thunderstorms.

Downtown San Francisco got a record 3.15 inches of rain on Monday, smashing the old mark of 2.36 inches set in 1872.