By Alex Dobuzinskis
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – The mudslides that tore through a coastal Southern California area this week claimed the lives of children as young as 3 and senior citizens as old as 89, officials said on Thursday, while rescue crews continued to search for eight people believed missing.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s office released the names of all 17 people killed in the slides, including three children, aged 3, 6 and 10, at least one married couple and two people in their 80s.
Some 700 rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles picked through waist-deep mud in the hunt for the missing in a disaster zone littered with the remnants of hundreds of damaged or destroyed homes.
“The focus is still on search and rescue; that’s still our primary goal,” Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said.
Among the dead were an elderly woman whose house was washed away by mud, the founder of a Roman Catholic school and a real estate executive, according to friends, family and local news media.
The cause of death for all 17 will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement.
“The Sheriff’s Office wants to express our heartfelt sadness to the family and friends of those who lost their loved ones,” it said.
Two of the victims were killed when their houses were swept away in the mudslides.
Josephine Gower, 69, died when she opened the door to her house, her son, Hayden Gower, told NBC station KSBY. Her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower confirmed Gower’s death in a Facebook post. Her body was found that night, near a highway hit by the slide.
“I told her to stay on the second floor, but she went downstairs and opened the door and just got swept away,” Hayden Gower told the TV station. “I should have just told her to leave. You just don’t even think that this is possible.”
Roy Rohter, 84, founder of the St. Augustine Academy Roman Catholic school, died when the slide swept him from his home in Montecito, according to school officials and local news media.
Rebecca Riskin, the 61-year-old founder of a real estate firm, was also killed in Montecito, according to the company and local news media. She is survived by her husband and two children.
“She was in the house and was swept away,” said Renee Grub, a friend of Riskin. “I’m told there was about 5 feet (1.5 m) of mud. She was a dear friend. She’s so little she was only like 100 pounds (45.36 kg).”
Heavy rains on hillsides that had been denuded by last year’s record wildfires triggered the floods, which also destroyed 100 homes and injured at least 28 people, officials said.
The region’s natural beauty and easy access to Los Angeles to the southeast have long attracted the rich and powerful, including media mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and actor Jeff Bridges.
“Our home has been severely damaged, but we are safe, and so thankful for that and for the first responders who are working tirelessly to save people,” Bridges wrote on Twitter. “We are heartbroken over the loss of lives in our community.”
In addition to the homes destroyed, the debris flow from the mudslides has damaged hundreds of other structures, officials said.
Last month’s spate of wildfires, including the largest in California history, burned away grass and shrubs that held soil in place, and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.
(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)