By Dorian Armstrong
20 people were killed and three more remain missing after mudslides tore through the southern California community of Montecito last week, according to the Associated Press.
Heavy rains on the morning of Jan. 9 washed mud and boulders from the nearby mountainside into the community, destroying over 100 homes and damaging nearly twice as many.
This mudslide is the deadliest in the U.S. since 2014, when 43 were killed in rural Oso, Washington, according to ABC. By contrast, Montecito is an affluent seaside village just east of Santa Barbara and 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Several celebrities own property there, including television host Oprah Winfrey.
“It is breathtakingly horrible,” Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams said, according to ABC. “Our community is going through something it has never gone through.”
The storm wasn’t anticipated to be a “once-in-200-years event,” according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
The mudslides were preceded by California’s worst ever wildfire season, which killed 44 and destroyed 8,400 buildings last fall, according to the LA Times. Yufang Jin, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis who co-authored a study on the wildfires, described the dry summer, powerful winds and increasing urban encroachment as a “perfect storm of weather conditions.”
Fatigue from recent forest fire evacuations prevented a preemptive evacuation of much of the town, a decision which Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown has defended.
“It was activated at the appropriate time actually when the event was occuring,” Brown said, according to the Associated Press.
21,000 people have since evacuated from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, according to NPR.
“We heard the earth just groaning like a tsunami was coming our way,” survivor Rita Bourbon told NPR. “And my daughter and I had our moment of we are probably not going to live through this… there could be boulders the size of our house coming down the road.”
Bourbon’s home escaped destruction, but two of her neighbors were killed when overflow from a nearby creek ripped their houses apart, according to NPR. One of the bodies was found in Bourbon’s backyard.
Rescue efforts are still ongoing, though emergency officials are becoming doubtful that more survivors can be saved, according to Reuters.
“It’s very overwhelming,” emergency responder Julie Purcell told the LA Times. “It’s devastating seeing the damage and knowing how hard it’s going to be for so many people to move on.”