17 dead, 7 missing after flooding and mudslides force thousands to flee in California

Posted on: January 11th, 2018 by ABC News No Comments

ABCNews.com(SANTA BARBARA, Calif.) — At least seven more people are missing and more than two dozen are injured in California from weather-related incidents, Santa Barbara County officials said Wednesday. The southern part of the state has been drenched with severe rain just weeks after several fires tore through the area.

Flash flooding, debris flow and mudslides are punishing the communities hit hard by the Thomas and La Tuna fires, prompting “dozens and dozens” of rescues on the ground, a spokesperson from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department told ABC News.

Montecito alone saw heavy rainfall in a short amount of time. About a third of the rain that has fallen in the last 24 hours in Montecito fell in just 5 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

Because hundreds of thousands of acres were charred in the fires, the influx of water has nowhere to go.

Some homes in Montecito’s affluent community have been ripped from their foundations as a result of the torrential conditions. Several dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged, officials said.

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management said Tuesday night the city of Montecito would be without potable water, electricity and sanitation “for an extended period of time.”

Local fire officials reported rescuing several people in the area, including a mother and her daughter who were caked in mud. About two dozen people in Santa Barbara County are unaccounted for, officials said.

The Claffey family in Carpinteria was forced to evacuate its home last month. After moving back in, family members were told to evacuate again because of the rain.

“If our house was flooded it would be devastating. Absolutely devastating,” Maureen Claffey told ABC News.

Another family told ABC News that they witnessed neighbors floating away from their homes on mattresses and others holding on to trees for hours in a whirlpool of frigid mud.

The record rains started coming down on Monday, soaking northern cities like San Francisco and Sacramento. First responders put on skies to help the stranded since many roads and thruways have become raging rivers.

A 14-year-old girl was “trapped for hours” in mud-soaked rubble on Hot Springs Road and then pulled to safety in a triumphant moment.

Power in the area has also been cut, according to ABC News affiliate KEYT.

More rescues were expected and evacuations are rising, officials said.

The worst of the storm will move inland, with the heavy rain letting up sometime around dinner time or even before, according to the National Weather Service. Flash flood watches will remain in effect across portions of Southern California, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara until then.

So far, rainfall totals Tuesday afternoon range from 3 to 5 inches in the mountains in Ventura County and 2 to 3 inches in the mountains of Santa Barbara County, with higher totals within the areas burned by the Thomas fire in both counties.

Rainfall rates exceeding one inch per hour at times contributed to the damaging mudslides in portions of Southern California.

The weather has snarled drivers and first responders attempting to aid storm victims.

Routes in and out of Santa Barbara have been shut down from the south, and various roadways have been swallowed by the floods.

The only way into some of the washed-out homes is by air.

Ventura’s Air Squad 6 dedicated helicopters to join Santa Barbara in the rescue effort.

Officials told ABC News they’ve been called to locations but they’re also stuck like thousands of motorists.

The 17 people killed in the mudslides included children ages 3, 6, 10, and 12.

A mudslide swept Roy Rohter, the founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California, and his wife, Theresa Rohter, out of their home in Montecito Tuesday, according to the Catholic school’s headmaster, Michael Van Hecke. Rohter’s wife was rescued and hospitalized in stable condition, but he did not survive, Van Hecke told ABC News.

“Roy’s life has been in service to his good, loving and ever-forgiving God,” Van Hecke, a close friend of the Rohters, said in a statement. “Thousands have been blessed by the Rohters’ friendship and generosity.”

According to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office, these are the names of those killed this week when heavy rain unleashed flash floods, mudslides and debris flow in the southern part of the state.

— Jonathan Benitez: 10 years old
— Kailly Benitez: 3 years old
— Martin Cabrera-Munoz: 48 years old
— David Cantin: 49 years old
— Sawyer Corey: 12 years old
— Peter Fleurat: 73 years old
— Josephine Gower: 69 years old
— John McManigal: 61 years old
— Alice Mitchell: 78 years old
— James Mitchell: 89 years old
— Mark Montgomery: 54 years old
— Caroline Montgomery: 22 years old
— Marilyn Ramos: 27 years old
— Rebecca Riskin: 61 years old
— Roy Rohter: 84 years old
— Peerawat Sutthithepn: 6 years old
— Richard Taylor: 67 years old

St. Augustine Academy posted a photo of Rohter on its Facebook page Tuesday with the caption, “Please pray for the repose of the soul of our founder, Roy Rohter — a giant gift to the Catholic Church and all things true, good and beautiful. Pray also for his wife, Theresa, the gentle giant of Charity and grace, and for his children and grandchildren. Thank you.”

“There is one thing Roy would want from everyone — prayers,” Van Hecke added. “He said so many times that after his passing, ‘Make sure everyone prays for my soul.’ We will, Roy!”

On Wednesday, loved ones searched for Montecito resident Josie Gower near her home, which was surrounded by knee-deep mud and large boulders that had been carried by the force of the mudslides.

Longtime friend Doug Scott told ABC News that Gower and another friend were on the second floor of her home but ventured downstairs when they heard rumbling. They were swept away by the mud, but the friend was rescued by clinging to a tree near the house, Scott said.

The home’s garage was completely destroyed and the cars had been swept away as well, said Gower’s son, Hayden Gower.

“Why didn’t she stay upstairs?” Hayden Gower asked, tearfully. “Why did she go downstairs?”

Josie Gower’s friend Diane Brewer said she used to live next door to the now-destroyed property. The two had traveled to Italy for five weeks with Josie Gower’s children last year.

Rebecca Riskin, a real estate agent and founder of Riskin Partners, was also killed in the mudslides in Montecito, the company confirmed in a post on its Facebook page Wednesday.

Riskin Partners described its founder as “an exceptional woman” who lived her life with “strength, grace and elegance.” Riskin is survived by her husband and their two children, her namesake firm said.

“It is with heavy hearts we share that our dear friend and partner, Rebecca Riskin, has passed away as a result of the tragic flooding and mudslides in Montecito. The confirmation of her loss is incredibly devastating to her friends, family, and our community,” Riskin Partners said in the Facebook post. “Per her wishes, we intend to carry out her life’s work with the same strength, grace and elegance that wholly defined Rebecca. Rebecca was an exceptional woman.”

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