The death toll resulting from mudslides that devastated a California town has climbed to 18 as rescue crews continued to search Saturday for seven people who are still missing, amid diminishing hope that survivors would be found.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office issued a plea to the public to provide information about the missing people, while acknowledging that finding survivors would be a “miracle.”
As rescuers continued to dig through mud, rocks and flattened homes, Sheriff Bill Brown said crews found the 18th victim, 87-year-old Joseph Bleckel, in his Romero Canyon-area home late Friday morning.
The number of missing has fluctuated widely after heavy rains unleashed a fury of devastation. Many of the 43 people unaccounted for have since been determined to be safe. The number of missing now stands at seven.
Most of the 9,000 residents of Montecito, located north of Los Angeles, remain under orders to stay out of town as gas and electricity were expected to be shut off Saturday for repairs. Sheriff Brown said those who did not evacuate what is known as the public safety exclusion zone, which incorporates most of the town, would be subject to arrest.
“It’s martial law here, basically,” said Sarah Ettman, whose home was undamaged. But with the anticipated loss of utilities and sewage running into a nearby creek, “you have to leave,” she said.
The catastrophe struck on Tuesday after heavy downpours drenched the area near Montecito, where vegetation that normally would have soaked up heavy rainfall had been stripped a month ago by the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history.
Flash floods swept down hillsides, unleashing torrents of mud, and uprooted trees and boulders into the valley below.
Some 2,100 local, state and federal officials are involved in search and recovery efforts, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.