As authorities continue to search for those missing in the deadly Montecito mudslide disaster, officials announced that U.S. 101 would remain closed indefinitely.
The 101, a major north-south artery that carries 100,000 vehicles through the Central Coast each day, was expected to open Monday, but officials said cleaning up an approximately two-mile stretch of the freeway was proving more difficult than imagined.
“It’s really an overwhelming situation and we don’t want to give an estimate that isn’t accurate,” CalTrans spokesman Colin Jones said.
CalTrans crews, aided by private contractors and the Army Corps of Engineers, have been working around the clock on the approximately two-mile stretch of the freeway near Montecito. Crews have removed most of the vehicles abandoned in the storm, including a number of tractor trailers, but a significant amount of debris and mud remains.
The clean-up Saturday focused on what the agency calls “dewatering” – using pumps to suck up the mud and rain water on the freeway. In a section of the road near Olive Mill Road, there was two feet of standing water and storm drains were clogged, Jones said.
Once all the mud and debris is removed, the pavement and overpasses must be evaluated for structural safety, and then signs and guardrails reinstalled and lines repainted, he said.
“CalTrans will get the 101 open,” he said. “We just don’t know when at this point.”
In addition to the highway, many local roads are blocked. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy said the big push on Saturday was to clean roads in the Santa Barbara and Montecito areas in order to improve vehicular access.
“As it stands, we’re still having to go in on foot in many areas,” he said.
State Route 192, which cuts across the foothills, is also unsafe in places, and officials are trying to establish an alternate route as soon as possible.
With the 101 closed, hundreds of people have taken to traveling the coast by boat. Two sightseeing companies, Island Packers in Ventura and Condor Express in Santa Barbara, have worked together to turn their vessels into a ferry service between the cities.
Tickets on the Condor Express, a 75-foot catamaran that normally takes tourists whale watching, were in high demand last week with many trips packed with the maximum 127 passengers, according to assistant manager Katie Fitts.
The 90-minute trip over the water was significantly shorter than the more than four-hour detour on the 5 Freeway, and ferry passengers included firefighters, city workers and medical personnel from Cottage Hospital, she said.
“There are people trying to get to their families that have been struck by this tragedy and people trying to get to work … surgeons and nurses,” Fitts said.
Ticket sales fell off Saturday after Amtrak restarted Surfliner and Coast Starlight service between Santa Barbara and Oxnard. The train trip between Ventura to Santa Barbara normally takes about 45 minutes. Trains were delayed two hours Saturday.
A spokeswoman said the delay “was due to adding capacity to accommodate an increase of customers.”
Meanwhile, business owners in Solvang – a favorite tourist stop of mostly western European-style hotels, bakeries and ranches just north of Santa Barbara – were in a near panic on Saturday as they watched sales revenues shrink to less than half of normal. For them, closing Interstate 101 seemed the equivalent of splitting the state in half.
Some hotels were even encouraging patrons from their largest market – the Los Angeles area – not to attempt the trip, which currently requires detours of up to 10-hours. Cancellations had become routine as word spread of the closure and some businesses and supermarkets had either reduced or halted restocking of inventories because they were not needed.
At least 18 people have died in the Montecito mudslides and seven people were still unaccounted for Friday, as hope waned that any survivors remained amid muck, boulders and toppled trees.
Rescuers continued to dig through the tangled wreckage of vehicles and homes, searching for human remains or survivors. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said crews recovered the latest victim, 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel, from his home in the Romero Canyon area about 11:30 a.m. Friday.
Bleckel had previously been listed as missing. The number of missing has fluctuated widely in the aftermath of heavy rains that pounded the Thomas fire burn scar this week and unleashed a torrent of mud, boulders and debris on Tuesday that destroyed scores of homes:
Authorities had said late Thursday that approximately 43 people were unaccounted for, but most of them have since been reported safe, according to Chris Elms, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of Friday evening, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s officials had identified seven people who were still missing.
The missing people include a man who lived in a homeless encampment along a creek bed in Montecito, said Maria Long, executive director of Doctors Without Walls, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing medical care to the homeless of the Santa Barbara area.
He was among dozens of people living in homeless encampments in the Montecito area.
Elms said crews are still trying to fight their way through roadways made inaccessible by mudflow in the hopes of locating more people. Officials expanded mandatory evacuation zones Thursday because pedestrians and traffic were hindering rescue and repair operations.
Brown said armored vehicles typically used by his SWAT team on barricaded suspects have been useful in reaching muddy areas where people were trapped. Most who had been stranded in their homes have been rescued, he said, including about 300 residents and staff members who were evacuated by rescue workers Thursday from the Casa Dorinda retirement home east of Olive Mill Road.
A Los Angeles Fire Department search-and-rescue team tried to sound an optimistic note — hoping for the best, bracing for the worst. Members used an arsenal of tools, technology and specially trained dogs to probe piles of debris more than 15 feet deep at the southern end of Romero Creek.
“It’s as exhausting, frustrating and tedious as looking for a needle in a haystack,” LAFD Battalion Chief Mark Akahoshi said, while hunched over a topographical map of surrounding terrain studded with ranches and mansions offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
One of the region’s most famous resorts, San Ysidro Ranch, sustained extensive damage in the mudslides, McElroy said Saturday. The luxury hotel, which has counted Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill and honeymooners John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy as guests, is edged by a creek that became a torrent of boulders, toppled trees and muck in the mudslide.
Contractors and crews using earthmovers and dump trucks were streaming into the property Saturday morning. Elroy said many key structures on the property remained standing.
Around noon Saturday, more than four dozen Los Angeles County firefighters armed with shovels, pickaxes, chain saws and heavy duty dumpsters descended on a debris-strewn location in the heart of the ranch property on a special mission: to rescue one of the oldest and most important adobe structures in Southern California.
The San Ysidro Adobe was inundated with water and mud the consistency of peanut butter. A bronze plaque on the devastated low-slung building said it was “built in 1825, and from 1868 to 1878.”
Staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this story.
3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with new information about the impact of the mudslides on area businesses.
12:25 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a missing person as well as efforts to rescue a historic adobe structure on the San Ysidro Ranch.
11 a.m. This article was updated with information about a ferry service between Ventura and Santa Barbara.
This article was originally posted at 9:25 a.m.