Teenager pulled alive from the rubble, as death toll from Southern California mudslides rises to 17

Our Foreign Staff

The number of people killed by mudslides in California has risen to 17  after two more bodies were found in rescue searches late on Wednesday.

The rise comes after a glimmer of hope among the tragedy when a teenage girl was pulled from the debris alive in a dramatic rescue.

Firefighters were able to free 14-year-old Lauren Cantin from the ruins of her Montecito home after six hours chopping away rubble using 'jaws of life' equipment and other tools.

She was found alive after firefighters with rescue dogs heard her cries for help. 

"I thought I was dead there for a minute," Miss Cantin, covered in mud, said after workers spent six hours rescuing her. She was able to stand up and walk with assistance, NBC News reported. 

"To be able to have her come out safely and as unscathed as she was, it was pretty phenomenal," Andy Rupp, a Montecito Fire Protection District firefighter, told NBC News.

Rescue efforts are expected to become easier on Wednesday after a powerful rain storm heads west and skies clear, authorities said.

Early on Wednesday, rescue personnel continued searching for victims in Santa Barbara County, where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles the previous day when more than half an inch (1.5 cm) of rain fell in five minutes, far exceeding the normal flash flood threshold.

"While we hope it will not, we expect this number to increase as we continue to look for people who are missing and unaccounted for," Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said of the death toll during a news conference on Tuesday.

The upscale communities of Montecito and Carpenteria, just outside the city of Santa Barbara, were hardest hit. Montecito is a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.

Californian firefighters rescued 14-year-old Lauren Cantin Credit:  MIKE ELIASON/AFP

Over the past month California's scenic coastline was ravaged by a series of intense wildfires that burned off vegetation.

On Tuesday, emergency workers using search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

Areas under evacuation order

Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after 7,000 residents in Santa Barbara County were ordered to evacuate and another 23,000 were urged to do so voluntarily, some of them for a second time since December.

Some of those celebrities in the area posted messages online: 

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

But only 10 to 15 per cent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide in January 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles south of the latest disaster.

Boulders block a road after being moved by the mudslide Credit: Reuters

Last month's wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some local residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains. 

'I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling'

The torrent of mud swept away cars and destroyed several homes, reducing them to piles of rubble. Photos posted on social media showed waist-deep mud in living rooms.

Some residents were unaccounted for in neighborhoods hard to reach because of downed trees and power lines, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Dave Zaniboni said.

"I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was ... boulders moving as the mud was rising," said Thomas Tighe, who discovered two of his cars missing from the driveway. "I saw two other vehicles moving slowly sideways down the middle of the street in a river of mud."

Marshall Miller, who evacuated his home in Montecito on Monday with his family, returned to check for damage and found his neighborhood devastated. He never reached his home because two of his neighbors, an elderly woman and her adult daughter, needed a lift to the hospital after being rescued by firefighters.

A search dog looks for victims in damaged homes  Credit: Reuters

The pair had left their house before it was inundated with 6 feet (1.8 meters) of mud, but they got trapped outside in the deep muck.

"It was sobering," Miller said. "I saw them covered in mud and shaking from the cold."

The path of the deluge was graphically illustrated on the side of a white colonial-style house, where a dark gray stain created a wavy pattern halfway up the front windows.

'All hell broke loose'

The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3:30 am (PST). Montecito got more than half an inch in five minutes, while Carpinteria received nearly an inch in 15 minutes.

"All hell broke loose," said Peter Hartmann, a dentist who moonlights as a news photographer for the local website Noozhawk.

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs  Credit: Reuters

"There were gas mains that had popped, where you could hear the hissing," he said. "Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants."

Hartmann watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck.

"It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud," he said. "It was scary."

Hartmann said he found a father-son tennis trophy awarded in 1991 to men his wife knows.

"Both of them were caught in the flood. Son's in the hospital, dad hasn't been found yet," he said, declining to name them.

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