Thousands attend vigil for California mudslide victims
MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — Thousands of people gathered Sunday night at a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to the 20 people who were killed when mudslides ravaged a Southern California community.
Tears were shed and hugs and prayers were shared during the emotional service outside the Santa Barbara County courthouse. Mourners lit prayer candles and left flowers as a makeshift memorial for the victims.
“Tonight, we need to mourn,” Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams said. “It is breathtakingly horrible. 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.
Because most churches in Montecito are in an evacuation area, many worshippers attended services in nearby towns on Sunday. At a church in Santa Barbara, they carried flowers, lit candles and prayed for the families who have lost loved ones. The victims were their friends and neighbors, they said.
“Our whole community is devastated,” Hannah Miller said at the Trinity Episcopal Church. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t know someone who has been affected by this disaster. It is truly awful. We can just pray they find those poor missing people.”
In the disaster area, firefighters went door to door 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.
“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.
Search and rescue operations ended Sunday and authorities transitioned to a search and recovery phase, Brown announced. 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 chain saws 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.
Sutthithepa, whose body was discovered Saturday, immigrated from Thailand, leaving behind his wife and two children but sending them money for years until he could bring them to the United States, a friend, Poy Sayavongs, told the Lee Central Coast News.
“They finally were able to make it to the states in the summer of 2016,” Sayavongs said. “It’s cruel — they only had a short time together before this tragedy struck.”
A month earlier, the family had evacuated to a Red Cross shelter for a night as a devastating wildfire that went on to blacken nearby mountains threatened their home and many others.
More than 2,000 searchers and recovery workers have remained in the community, carrying out backbreaking work in the summerlike weather that has made the stretch of Santa Barbara County coast about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles a haven for the wealthy, celebrities and tourists.
Much of the community of about 9,000 residents remained under mandatory evacuation orders, even unscathed areas, as crews removed debris and worked to restore water, sanitation, power and gas. There was no timeline for allowing residents to return, Assemblywoman Monique Limon said.
Limon, a Democrat, said she’s working with other legislators to address concerns about flood and fire insurance and issues with emergency cellphone alerts.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.