The number of people reported missing in the Montecito mudslides rose to 43 on Thursday afternoon after falling to as few as eight that morning, even as teams assembled from four counties to continue searching for and rescuing trapped residents using helicopters and all-terrain vehicles.
A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for all of Montecito, South Coast beaches and ocean waters have been closed and an 11-mile stretch of Highway 101 remains closed after mud, trees and boulders rushed down from the fire-scorched hillsides and killed at least 17 people, destroyed 100 homes and damaged 300 more early Tuesday morning.
The 17 dead have been identified, and their names were released Thursday morning after their next of kin had been notified.
“At this point, we’re sad to say, there are 43 people who are considered missing,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a press conference at 4 p.m. Thursday.
That number “fluctuates continuously,” he said, as some people are accounted for and others are added to the “comprehensive list” compiled from calls to emergency dispatchers and the Family Assistance Center as well as posts on social media websites.
Rescuers are hoping none of the missing are found dead, Brown said, but he pointed out some of those listed as missing may have left the area, are staying with friends or are still alive but trapped within the flood zone.
“This remains a very active search-and-rescue mission,” he said, noting that in many disasters there are stories of survivors who last long periods of time and are eventually rescued.
Aviation resources and all-terrain vehicles have been “critical to the operation,” and a number of rescues — some of them dramatic — were carried out Thursday using ATVs, Brown said.
However, so-called “lookie-loos” flooding the area on foot and bicycles have impeded the efforts to such an extent that Brown ordered a mandatory evacuation of what amounts to the entire community of Montecito, effective at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The mandatory evacuation area is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the south, Hot Springs Road on the west, Los Padres National Forest on the north and Ortega Ridge to East Valley Road to Ladera Road on the east.
Brown added that people living in adjacent areas should consider leaving, too.
“We anticipate (the mandatory evacuation) will be in effect for a week, but we recommend (residents) prepare for two weeks, although we hope it will be less,” he said, asking people outside that area to help evacuees by “opening up your hearts, opening up your houses.”
“If you have friends living in Montecito, invite them to stay with you for a week.”
People should take their pets with them, but the unified disaster command is working with County Animal Services to feed and water animals that can’t be removed from the evacuation area.
Capt. Cindy Pontes, of the California Highway Patrol, said Highway 101 will remain closed at Milpas Street for southbound traffic and at Highway 150 for northbound traffic until Monday, but she said Caltrans is working hard to regain freeway access at least to the Summerland area as soon as possible.
“We are making progress every day to open up transportation routes,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of the County Public Works Department. “But in many cases, the creek is flowing out of its channel onto Highway 101.”
Until the flow can be restored to the channel, it will be difficult to get the freeway reopened, he said.
In anticipation of Tuesday's predicted heavy storm, Public Works crews spent the previous week cleaning out all of the area’s debris basins, which Fayram inspected again Thursday morning.
“What I saw in the debris basins was amazing, the amount of debris trapped there,” he said.
But he added the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived Thursday with 100 large trucks and other equipment and was scheduled to start working 24 hours a day Friday to clear drainage channels.
“We’re going to have a lot of equipment in there,” he said. “We have to move fast. We have to get ready for future rain.”
Nick Turner, of the Montecito Water District, said the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board confirmed the South Coast Conduit from Cachuma Lake is intact, holding pressure and delivering water to Ortega Reservoir, which serves the community.
However, he said there are many breaks in water mains and many missing fire hydrants that were sheared off by the mud flows, so much of the community has no water service and the rest has limited low-pressure service.
“It’s uncertain when water service will be restored to the entire community,” he said.
While the sudden, devastating mud flows resulted in death, serious and even critical injuries, destroyed and damaged homes, businesses and infrastructure, there are less visible damages that may last months, if not years.
That comes in the emotional toll.
“The emotional impact of this event can expect to last a long time,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, of the Family Assistance Center set up to help people find loved ones and friends and provide counseling to those who may have received “the worst news of their lives.”
“Children and adults have been exposed to prolonged stress and tremendous loss,” she explained. “Children have witnessed confident parents and caregivers experiencing extreme anxiety and fear. Children and adults have experienced the horror of seeing severely injured people and bodies either in person or through the television.
“Emotional exhaustion and physical wear and tear is present throughout our community from those directly impacted, to our first responders, and others still trying to make sense of what is happening,” she said.
But she had advice for helping overcome the emotional impact of those traumatic experiences.
“Parents and caregivers: Spend time with and talk to your children,” she urged. “Maintain routines. Limit media exposure. Answer questions briefly and honestly, and ask children for their thoughts and ideas about what is happening. This connection helps children feel safe and calm.
“And for everyone, continue to take care of yourself. Take good physical care, eat well, sleep well — as best you can — get exercise, talk to and listen to each other.”
The Family Assistance Center in the First Presbyterian Church at 21 E. Constance Ave. in Santa Barbara will be open until 8 p.m. Friday, Grimmesey said. It can be reached by calling toll-free 833-688-5551. Information is also available by calling 211 or 681-5542.