Update: As of Friday morning, January 12, the death toll had risen to 17.
Heavy rains set off a series of massive mudslides in Montecito, California, killing at least 15 people, trapping hundreds more in their homes, and destroying approximately 100 homes, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. The disaster began early Tuesday morning, around 2:30 a.m. PST, when rains began dislodging both boulders and cascades of mud, sending them pouring down area hillsides.
Both local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard were involved in response operations throughout the day Wednesday, including helicopter rescues and attempting to retrieve residents trapped inside their homes. Some homes were actually uprooted from their foundations and swept along by the river of mud.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown compared the scene to that of a “World War I battlefield,” according to the Times.
According to public information officer Amber Anderson, the official death toll has hit 15, with at least 28 reported injuries and 24 people missing. In addition to the 100 homes reported destroyed, 300 more were damaged by the mudslides. Anderson said that eight commercial properties were also destroyed. At least 7,000 people have been evacuated from the area.
Tragically, the death toll is expected to rise as authorities work to access and clear the areas buried beneath debris and waist-deep mud.
Tragically, much of this new disaster can be linked to a previous one California has been reeling from in recent months. The widespread wildfires that burned through the region destroyed vegetation and left the soil scorched. This type of soil cannot absorb water as easily, making the region more vulnerable to mudslides during heavy rains—such as the ones that dumped five inches of rain on parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties this week.
Estimates for the housing damages from the California wildfires topped $5 billion. It remains to be seen what the financial cost of these mudslides will total, but the human cost is already far too clear.