The raging wildfires that burned through Southern California last month left behind huge swaths of charred and barren land that is now at the center of a new natural disaster. Mudslides, brought on by heavy rains and made worse by the vulnerable hillsides, have killed at least 17 people and left eight more missing.
The damage has been mainly concentrated in Montecito, an upscale town just outside of Santa Barbara. In December, the area was ground zero for the largest wildfire in the history of California, dubbed the Thomas Fire. That blaze cut a path through the hills above Montecito, stripping away trees and brush and allowing downpours to create havoc this week.
As the heavy rains, a rarity in drought-stricken California, fell on early Tuesday morning, mud, rocks, and water began cascading down creek beds and hills into the neighborhoods below. The muck arrived as residents slept and began ripping homes from their foundations, tossing power lines like twigs, and turning roads into rivers of mud.
By morning, it looked “like an apocalypse happened,” one resident told the L.A. Times. Rescue workers found bodies in the streets and searched for more, walking through the roads with long poles used to probe the mud for what may lie beneath.
Search crews, made up of rescue workers and citizen volunteers, have been dispatched to locate the missing. With so many roads impassable, helicopters have been combing the area for trapped survivors and plucking them off the roofs of their homes.
Around 500 homes have so far been damaged in the mudslides and another 1,500 are still under threat. A stretch of the 101 freeway has also been covered by mud and will be closed through next week.
Over the weekend, when forecasts began predicting rain, thousands were ordered to evacuate their homes, some of which were turned to pulp by the crush of falling hillsides.
Not everyone listened, though. David Cradduck told the L.A. Times that after having to evacuate his home for the wildfires, he didn’t want to do it all over again. So he stayed home. “Mother Nature came back and dealt us a big blow, but it’s our fault,” he said. “We should have heeded the warning.”
The mudslides come on the heels of a devastating year for natural disasters in the U.S. The combined effects of hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, droughts, and flooding did an estimated $306 billion in total damage, according to NOAA. That blows away the previous record of $215 billion, set in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita all hit the U.S.