MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — At the end of a heartbreaking week that saw deadly mudslides kill at least 20, residents of Montecito gathered to grieve, pay tribute to victims and commit to rebuilding their cherished community on the Southern California coast.
Mourners lit prayer candles and left flowers as a makeshift memorial for the victims after shedding tears, hugs and prayers during the vigil outside the Santa Barbara County courthouse.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m scared of Mother Nature right now,” Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo told the attendees at the vigil.
Bethany Harris, who lives in Santa Barbara, brought her two young sons to the vigil because she wanted to make sure they understood the impact the devastating storm has had on the community, she said.
“We all know someone who has been affected by this,” she said. “We will heal together.”
Before a moment of silence, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams read out the names of each of the 20 victims.
“Tonight, we need to mourn,” he said. “Our community is going through something it has never gone through.”
Those at the vigil included the family of 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa, whose body was discovered Saturday afternoon. His 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, remained missing. His 6-year-old son, Peerawat, nicknamed Pasta, and his 79-year-old father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor, also were killed in the mudslides. Family members said they were too distraught to speak.
“This family is one of several that lost multiple family members,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. “And we know that the suffering of those who knew and loved all of the victims is immense.”
The list of those still missing in the mudslides has shrunk to four.
In the disaster area, firefighters went door to door on Sunday to check the structural stability of the houses damaged by a powerful rainstorm that preceded the mudslides and scoured what’s left of toppled homes and mangled cars as they searched for the missing.
Search and rescue operations ended Sunday and authorities transitioned to a search and recovery phase, Brown said. The move allows officials to release resources that are no longer needed and allow search operations to slow to a safer pace, he said.
The storm sent flash floods cascading through mountain slopes that were burned bare by a huge wildfire in December. Workers used backhoes, jackhammers and chainsaws to clear away masses of mud, boulders and toppled trees.
Crews have made it a priority to clear out debris basins and creek canals before another rainstorm. Long-range forecasts gave the crews about a week before the next chance of rain — and potential new mudslides — although the precipitation was expected to be disorganized and light. Another system was possible two days later.
The mudslides on Jan. 9 ravaged the tony community, destroying at least 65 homes and damaging more than 460 others, officials said. They also forced the indefinite shutdown of U.S. 101, the only major freeway between Santa Barbara and points east.
The rest of the community’s infrastructure also was damaged. Some streets were cracked in half, and authorities closed bridges and overpasses because they were unstable. Amtrak said it was adding rail cars to each of its five daily roundtrip trains between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to accommodate commuters grappling with the ongoing closure of U.S. 101.
But despite the damage in the neighborhood, Montecito residents still have hope their community will recover.
“They’re exhausted but they find ways to try to live life as normally as they can,” Williams said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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(Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)