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‘It was just wiped clean’: Reckoning with the toll of the California mudslides

A firefighter looks through a car next to a home that was destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito, Calif. At least 17 people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged when massive mudslides crashed through the town early on the morning of Jan. 9, 2018. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When the flooding began early Tuesday, Alice and James Mitchell were still at their home in Montecito, Calif., just a mile from the beach. The couple had celebrated James's 89th birthday Monday, but they also had spent part of the day preparing to evacuate in case they were ordered to leave. Mudslides were a possible result of the recent wildfires' denuding the hillsides of trees.

Then came the rain, which sent rivers of water, mud and debris roaring through the scenic coastal community just south of Santa Barbara. When it was over, the Mitchell home was gone, washed down the road toward the ocean. Just a piece of a wall remained, said Clay Weimer, the couple's son-in-law.

"It was like a construction crew came in and wiped it; it was clean," Weimer said in a telephone interview Friday. "It hardly had any mud on it. It was just wiped clean."

Before and after photos of the mudslides in Montecito

Weimer said his wife, Kelly, had been trying to reach her parents since Tuesday morning, and the bad news came Wednesday: The bodies of James and Alice, who were married for five decades and were the grandparents of six, had been found in the detritus.

"The main target, you would swear, was [their] house," said Weimer, 59, a software engineer. "Everybody in the path of that was doomed. . . . It's devastating."

‘Evacuation fatigue’ caused some to ignore peril of mudslides

The disaster has claimed at least 18 lives, cutting across generations and killing parents alongside their children. The youngest victim was 3. James Mitchell was the oldest. All were killed by "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides," according to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office.

In an area where the Thomas Fire already had caused lengthy evacuations last month, many said a sense of weariness had set in. People had packed up, left and come back, and some were not so eager to leave again. Authorities warned Monday that many in Montecito should flee ahead of the rains, but not everyone did.

Alice and James Mitchell had been forced from their home once, evacuating weeks earlier for the wildfires that burned nearby. But because they were in a voluntary evacuation zone this week, they stayed, Clay Weimer said.

"Everybody was tired from the fire warnings," Weimer said Friday. "It was a long fire, tough fire, and then everybody kind of relaxed too much."

That fire, the largest in California history, had roared across the hillsides above Montecito, leaving sloping patches of earth that were expected to give way in a downpour. When the rivers of water and mud had stopped, dozens of homes were destroyed and hundreds of others damaged. Some of the damaged homes had "boulders or cars or other debris punch through them," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in an interview Friday.

The death toll climbed as rescue workers plunged into the mud

More than two dozen people were injured, and at least five remained missing Friday, authorities said, although they noted that the number is expected to fluctuate. It had risen to 43 missing a day earlier, but many of those people were found, having been cut off from communication without power or cellphone signal, Brown said.

"We're hoping against hope that we can find somebody that might be alive," Brown said.

As the search and rescue efforts continued, stories of grim loss have begun to emerge. Montecito is a small town, so it felt as if everyone knew someone who was lost in or seriously affected by the disaster.

Among those killed was Josephine "Josie" Gower, 69, an "always cheery" regular at the Read 'N Post, a newsstand and gift shop, said Jan Hendrickson, the store's owner. David Cantin, 49, got his hair cut Monday at Montecito Barbers, a small shop in the Coast Village Road center, right before he died in the mudslides.

"He's been coming here since before I started working here," said Cantin's barber, Tim Sanchez, who owns the shop. "My dad used to cut his hair."

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Mark Montgomery, 54, a prominent hand surgeon in Santa Barbara, was swept out of his home along with his son, Duffy, 19, and daughter, Caroline, 22. The siblings were carried downhill in the churn of mud, stone and debris, said Mark's brother, David Montgomery, who is a Washington Post reporter.

Duffy survived, was treated in the hospital and released with cuts, bruises and a shoulder fracture. Caroline, a high school water polo star and a senior at Barnard College in New York, was fatally injured and died in her brother's arms, her uncle said.

Mark was an avid ice hockey player who had skated in a game the night before the mudslides. His body was found a day after his children were recovered, about a mile from their home. The father and daughter had shared a love of taking canoe trips on the wilderness lakes and portages of Canada, David Montgomery said.

How the Thomas Fire planted the seeds for the deadly mudslides

Some people were prepared to go but decided to stay in their homes, among them a woman and her mother who were trapped by a six-foot wall of mud.

The Mitchells likewise opted to stay. Kelly Weimer spoke to her parents on Monday. Alice had gone to the store, and they were planning a small celebration for James's birthday. They were ready to leave if they needed to.

"That's the last we heard of them," Clay Weimer said. "We were really sure they were just rescued."

When Clay and Kelly Weimer could not reach the Mitchells, they jumped in their car Tuesday and headed south from the Bay Area.

Even after Kelly Weimer learned that her parents had been lost in the mudslides, she held out one last hope, her husband said. Her parents had a dog — Gigi, a small white poodle — who had not been found. Gigi was a rescue dog the couple had taken in a year earlier, and the dog followed them everywhere, Clay Weimer said. Maybe the dog was okay.

"That's all she could talk about last night," Weimer said.

More bad news came Friday morning: Gigi's body had been found.

"I saw the place," Weimer said. "And I don't think Superman would've survived it."

Biasotti reported from Montecito, Calif. Julie Tate and Scott Wilson in Washington and David Shultz in Montecito contributed to this report.