What the Aftermath of a Deadly Mudslide Looks Like

A member of a search and rescue team waded through mud and debris in Montecito, Calif.
Credit...Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The wildfire that ravaged much of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties last month was the largest in California history. But it was the mudslides this week that proved far more deadly, killing at least 18 people. Rescue crews were looking for more than 40 people still missing on Friday morning. Officials said they expect the death toll to rise.

The mud came more rapidly and strongly than anyone predicted. Although Santa Barbara officials recommended on Monday night that residents should evacuate, few were alarmed by the suggestion and they stayed put, only to be woken by the sounds of boulders tumbling down the hills.

The thick mud felt much like wet cement, leaving dozens of residents stuck for hours while they waited to be rescued. More than 100 homes were destroyed. On some properties, nothing remained but the foundation.

Search and rescue workers used long poles to probe for bodies in the mud. In many places it was impossible to tell whether the mud was solid — one official compared it to a candy shell on top of ice cream.

Many residents said they were shocked to see the size and number of boulders that had come tumbling down the mountain into the streets, some as large as cars.

Nearly all of the roads to the area remained closed on Friday, making it nearly impossible for residents to get across town and forcing rescue teams to rely on fire trucks and airlifts.

The 101 freeway was completely closed off Thursday, turning Montecito into a kind of island.

Family members of some of the victims killed in the mudslides said that the city should have made the mandatory evacuation zone larger. While many were reluctant to move out for the second time in a month, it could have saved lives, they said.

The bodies of several victims were dragged — along with cars and other debris — a mile away from their homes, in some cases all the way to the beach.

By Friday morning, rescue workers were still holding out hope that those stranded in the mud would find a way to stay alive. Officials warned residents that it could be weeks before they were allowed to return to their homes.

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