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After devastating wildfires came deadly mudslides. Here’s what makes them so treacherous

Huge mudslides have wiped out at least 100 homes in Southern California, where authorities have confirmed 15 deaths. Rescue crews dug through the mud and debris on Wednesday in search of survivors; hundreds are still trapped or missing. Judy Woodruff gets an update from Sharon McNary of Southern California Public Radio from Montecito, the community that has suffered the worst damage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    They're still digging tonight in Southern California, where huge mudslides wiped out at least 100 homes early Tuesday.

    Authorities have confirmed 15 deaths. Another two dozen people are missing in a disaster zone that covers 30 square miles.

    Home after home destroyed, filled to the roofs with mud or ripped from foundations.

  • Woman:

    I would say it's apocalyptic. I had no idea that the devastation was like this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Splintered remains and a river of mud now cover much of Montecito. The small, coastal community in Santa Barbara County suffered the worst of the damage. People say they woke in the middle of the night Monday to the roar of a torrential rainstorm. It pounded some parts of the region with more than an inch of rain an hour.

  • Helen Murdoch:

    It sounded like a hurricane or freight train coming through. I can't — can't quite believe it. Is that a house behind us? Was that a house?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The deluge overwhelmed the nearby hills that had been burned bare of vegetation just weeks ago by the largest wildfire in California's history. Soon, fast-moving mudflows carrying large boulders tore through the wealthy neighborhood of 9,000. They had been ordered to evacuate, but many refused or left too late.

  • Maureen Claffey:

    I panicked. I mean, they were both asleep. And I was in my boots, and I just said there's mud in the driveway, there's mud in the driveway.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, rescue crews kept digging through mud and debris in search of survivors. More than 50 people have been rescued so far. Many, including this family of five, were airlifted out, plucked from their rooftops by the Coast Guard.

    And crews from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department pulled a 14-year-old girl from her destroyed home in Montecito on Tuesday. She had been trapped there for hours.

    Robert Riskin was still looking for his mother late yesterday as he searched through her home.

  • Robert Riskin:

    It's my mom. And I'm fighting with all my heart to find her. I have just been clawing through the mud. And it's hard to hold hope when the mud is so deep.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is believed hundreds are still trapped or missing around Montecito. The storm also triggered mudflows and flash flooding across parts of nearby Los Angeles and Ventura counties this week, submerging highways and cars.

    Officials say there's no telling how long the region's recovery will take, as crews try to clear away mud and debris.

  • Man:

    You're going to follow my treads, OK? You got six to eight to 12 inches of mud out there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For now, travel in the area is near impossible. Parts of the coastal 101 Highway are still closed, covered in several feet of mud.

    For more on rescue and recovery efforts in the flood and slide areas, and how residents are coping, we turn to Sharon McNary of Southern California Public Radio. She is in Montecito, and she joins us by phone.

    So, Sharon, tell us — thank you for joining us.

    Tell us, exactly where are you?

  • Sharon McNary:

    I'm on Highway 192, which is that dividing line between the voluntary and the mandatory evacuation, just on the outskirts of the mud zone.

    And there's just a ton of activity going on here, including some military helicopters overhead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is it, Sharon, about this mud that is making it so difficult to remove?

  • Sharon McNary:

    When you get a heavy rain on burned soil, the lower layer bakes hard, and all the topsoil on top of it gets all this water in it and that makes it slow down. It also makes it sit in a very viscous, watery layer, and it's like the sort of mud that will suck the boots right off your feet.

    Also, I'm sure that with 24 people still unaccounted for, they're being very careful how they dig.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sharon, were people, were these towns in that area prepared for this?

  • Sharon McNary:

    I would say that the government did as much preparation as they could, but they had so little time between the end of the fires and the beginning of the rain, it was probably difficult to put enough protection in place.

    The citizenry, people had the mandatory evacuation orders above Highway 192, where I am. Below, it was voluntary, and people had been out of their homes for nearly a month. So you had evacuations setting in, and people might have taken some comfort that this is an evacuation warning, not a mandatory evacuation.

    And that might have accounted for some people being in their house when it was unsafe to be there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And these people, as you say, have had so much to deal with. So perhaps they didn't take these warnings seriously.

  • Sharon McNary:

    I think it's more that people are very unfamiliar with what happens when you have a mud and debris flow.

    You can be in a place that looks perfectly safe, that looks kind of flat. You cannot imagine what it's like to be at the bottom of a funnel of literally acre-feet of watery mud, and it comes very, very fast. I was in a mud flow yesterday and it went from a wash channel being six inches of water to being 10 feet of water full of boulders.

    You just don't understand how fast it can come on you. So, I don't think people were careless. I think they lacked understanding of how serious this was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think really hard for people to imagine who are not part of it.

    And just very quickly, any estimates on how long this is going to take, this rescue and recovery?

  • Sharon McNary:

    I have not heard one. I can't imagine it would be any less than just days to dig it out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Sharon McNary, Southern California Public Radio, we thank you.

  • Sharon McNary:

    Thank you.

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