Firefighters from Kern County assess a home near Sycamore Canyon Road. The crew had been working on the site for two days after a body was recovered in the home. The instability of the wreckage demanded precision in entering and searching what remained.

Photo: Brandon Yadegari

Firefighters from Kern County assess a home near Sycamore Canyon Road. The crew had been working on the site for two days after a body was recovered in the home. The instability of the wreckage demanded precision in entering and searching what remained.

Amid Unprecedented Emergency Response, Future Remains Uncertain After Montecito Mudslides

Death Toll Climbs to 18

Friday, January 12, 2018

Those looking to calibrate their watches for when life can be expected to get back to normal got no good news — and certainly no certainty — at the Friday afternoon press briefing held by incident commanders leading the response effort for the Montecito mudslide. For the foreseeable future, Montecito will remain a permanent deconstruction site run by semi-military public works and public safety organizations and off-limits to most of the people who until Tuesday called it home.

Sheriff Bill Brown announced that one additional body was discovered Friday, that of Joseph Francis Bleckel, an 87-year-old Montecito resident who gave generously to organizations like the Cancer Foundation and Direct Relief. The discovery of Bleckel’s body — in his home near Romero Canyon —brings the death total associated with this week’s avalanche of mud to 18.

That number, however, is all but certain to increase. As Brown addressed those assembled at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, a team of Orange County search and rescue workers along Olive Mill Road were hard at work amid a pile of rubble that had once been a home, following the active direction of a “cadaver dog.” These dogs are specially trained to detect dead bodies by scent. There are 13 assigned to the incident. Another 16 dogs specially trained to detect live bodies are also assigned to the task. Both squads play a key role in current search and rescue efforts. Incident commanders with Cal Fire say that all properties in Montecito have now been searched at least once for any survivors and that their teams are now on round two.

By Brandon Yadegari

Firefighters are joined by members of the Army Corps of Engineers to assess a home that suffered substantial damage when Montecito Creek veered to the west before crossing over East Mountain Drive, cutting a new path near Sycamore Canyon Road.

Cal Fire officials stated there are now 1,250 personnel responding to the 30-square-mile mudslide and 114 engines, and 14 helicopters.

Brown listed the number of missing initially at six and then later in the press conference, amended that report to announce one of the missing had been located in a hospital outside of Santa Barbara. The number of missing has been exceptionally fluid and has varied dramatically from day to day. On Thursday evening, for example, Brown stated there were 43 people the incident command was considering as missing.

For motorists wondering if and when Highway 101 will reopen, there was no good news. The answer, according to CHP Captain Cindy Pontes, is “unknown.” Earlier this week, Caltrans announced Highway 101 would be cleared as of midday Monday, January 15. Ponce revealed she always thought that estimate unrealistic and unduly optimistic. The water level continues to rise on a stretch of freeway about three-quarters of a mile long centered around Olive Mill Road, as water continues to pour in. Ponce said so many trucks and cranes are now scooping out the muddy soup that they’re all but running into one another. The problem, she said, is that the water continues to flow onto the freeway. Despite all the work now taking place, the water level on the freeway — for that problematic stretch — is higher than the freeway median.

Where Caltrans has more water than it knows what to do with, the Montecito Water District doesn’t have nearly enough. A spokesperson for the Water District revealed that it’s equally unknown when anything resembling normal service might resume. Some customers have no water service at all; others have at most a dribble. Because of multiple breaks sustained by key water delivery pipes that keep the reservoirs filled, the district lacks the pressure needed to be able to get what little water it does have to its customers. It hasn’t helped matters that five to six fire hydrants were sheared off by the violent onslaught of water, mud, and boulders earlier this week, allowing flumes of water to shoot unimpeded from six-inch water mains.

By Brandon Yadegari

Crews work to clear a storm drain along Jameson Lane in an effort to begin draining neighborhoods in the area.

Montecito Water District Boardmember Floyd Wicks expressed gratitude that neighboring water districts have lent Montecito 60 trained water and public works personnel to locate and begin repairs on the district’s numerous broken water mains. In the meantime, the district is participating in a free distribution of bottled water from three distribution points: Summerland Post Office, Montecito Fire Station at Cold Springs Road, and the Upper Village.

Brown responded to a reporter questioning whether Montecito residents were notified in a timely fashion for the impending juggernaut of water and mud. That emergency notice went out at 3:50 a.m. on Monday morning; the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood advisory an hour and 20 minutes sooner. Brown said, “It’s doing a disservice to focus on that,” adding such questions should best be pressed later. Brown added that many notices had been issued prior to the 3:50 a.m. alert, including a mandatory evacuation notification issued on Friday afternoon, ordering 7,000 residents to leave as of Monday noon.

The question elicits an angry response from many in public safety, who note that 85 percent of those ordered to evacuate stayed in their homes. Questions persist, however, as to why some areas were placed on evacuation orders while others — where 23,000 live — on evacuation warnings. Many homes in the warning zone were demolished or damaged and many of the dead were found in that zone, too. Brown stated that “the vast majority” of those who perished in the mudslide “originated” from properties in the mandatory evacuation zone.