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Search Efforts Continue After California Mudslides Killed At Least 15

Santa Barbara County Fire Department firefighters respond to mud and debris flow due to heavy rain in Montecito.

Rescue efforts are ongoing in Santa Barbara County in California, with search teams looking for people who were caught by massive mudslides that swamped houses and trapped cars on Tuesday.

At least 15 people have died as a result of the mudslides, triggered when heavy rains hit hills that were recently devastated by wildfires, The Associated Press reports.

Some people are still unaccounted for, and the death toll is expected to climb, Danielle Karson reports for NPR.

Roads have been washed out or covered by rivers of mud that also devastated residential neighborhoods.

Karson, reporting for NPR from Pasadena, Calif., said the mudflows above Montecito were so powerful they ripped some homes off their foundations.

"Some rescues have been gut-wrenching: firefighters pushed through wait-high mud to reach a 14-year-old girl caked in mud from head to toe," Karson reports. "She had been trapped for hours in a pile of wood that was once her house.

"Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown described the devastation this way: 'It looked like a World War I battlefield. It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere.' "

More than two dozen people were injured in the mudslides, member station KCLU reports.

"A number of houses were gutted, with rescuers pulling out people trapped under mountains of debris," KCLU's Lance Orozco wrote on Tuesday night. "Helicopters rescued some people who climbed onto the roofs of their homes to escape the torrent of water, and mud."

More than 500 firefighters helped with overnight search and rescue operations, Orozco says.

The Associated Press describes the catastrophic scene after the storm struck on Tuesday:

"The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep, fire-scarred Santa Ynez Mountains. Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth doesn't absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.

"The torrent arrived suddenly and with a sound some likened to a freight train as water carrying rocks and trees washed away cars and trashed homes.

"Thomas Tighe said he stepped outside his Montecito home in the middle of the night and heard 'a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was ... boulders moving as the mud was rising.'

"Two cars were missing from his driveway and he watched two others slowly move sideways down the middle of the street 'in a river of mud.'

"In daylight, Tighe was shocked to see a body pinned by muck against his neighbor's home. He wasn't sure who it was.

"Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because of heavy rain in the forecast for the first time in 10 months."

The storm is now over, and weather is no longer interfering with rescue efforts, authorities say.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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