The California Mudslide Death Toll Rises To 20 While A Major Highway Remains Closed

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Last month’s historic wildfires in Southern California prompted last week’s Montecito mudslides, which destroyed over 100 homes and damaged the properties of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres in Santa Barbara county. The ongoing disaster has now grown even more deadly, for CNN reports that the toll has now reached 20 (including 4 children), and 4 people are still missing, although rescuers note that the window of realistically finding anyone alive is swiftly closing. The LA TImes also reports that vigils for the dead took place over the weekend while crews work toward recovery.

And that recovery will take a very long time, to put things mildly. In the immediate wake of mudflow and tumbling boulders, a two-mile portion of U.S. Highway 101 (which sees up to 100,000 vehicles each day) closed. Officials hoped to reopen the stretch on Monday, but there’s still much progress to be made with 75 workers on the project, so the closure is considered indefinite:

By Sunday afternoon, Caltrans crews had removed 150 yards of debris from northbound lanes and 80 yards of debris from southbound lanes, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said. But officials said cleaning up one part of the freeway at Olive Mill Road was proving especially difficult because, as one of the lowest points in the area, it had served a magnet for water and mud.

The crews are using pumps to suck up remaining mudflow and water, and that’s only one step. Officials will have to determine the highway’s structural integrity following the disaster before repainting lines and reinstalling guardrails. According to the New York Times, Santa Barbara County Fire Department Chief Eric Peterson told reporters that the damage was both unfathomable and entirely unexpected: “No one could have planned for the size and scope of what a 200-year storm, immediately following our largest wildfire, would bring.”

There’s also the possibility that matters could grow worse, and officials are urging people to clear drainage channels on their properties because even the slightest amount of rain could cause further catastrophe. NBC News quotes local Emergency Management Office Director Rob Lewin, who says crews are hard at work on the problem. “If we don’t get those debris basins cleared out,” Lewin said. “Then we’re not going to be prepared for the next storm, and we don’t know what that storm is going to look like.”

As of now, no rain is on the horizon, but given the unprecedented weather of last week, area residents can’t be too careful.

(Via CNN, LA Times, New York Times & NBC News)

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