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California Mudslides Death Toll Rises To At Least 20, Residents Told To Evacuate

Updated 1:40 p.m. ET on Sunday

The death toll rose to 20 on Sunday as authorities ramped up search and rescue efforts for those missing in the deadly mudslides in Santa Barbara, Calif. And hope of finding the four remaining missing personsalive, five days after storm devastated the region, is vanishing.

"We're still in rescue mode and we still hope to find someone alive, although the chances of that are becoming slim," Justin Cooper, a spokesperson for the multi-agency response team, told Reuters.

Another 900 emergency personnel arrived over the weekend, boosting the relief effort to more than 3,000 workers from local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the American Red Cross.

They were sent in response to urgent requests for additional manpower made earlier in the week.

Local residents are mourning the untimely death of those who died in the mudslides — more than the number of people killedin the Thomas fire. A vigil organized by Montecito elected officials is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday night at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden.

Updated at 10:25 p.m. ET

On the fourth day of search for victims of the southern California mudslides, the death toll has increased to 19 people, the Santa Barbara sheriff's office tells NPR. At least 5 people, including a 2-year-old, remain missing.

Twenty-five-year-old victim Morgan Corey was located in the mud and debris in Montecito, county Sheriff Bill Brown told the Associated Press on Saturday. She was predeceased by her 12-year-old sister, Sawyer, who too died in the perilous conditions.

Joseph Bleckel, 87, also died, in his Montecito home, the sheriff's office reported early Saturday.

But 62-year-old Delbert Weltzin, who had been previously identified as missing, was "found alive and well," Brown told the AP.

The victims' ages ranged from 3 to 89 and the cause of death for all was "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire," according to the sheriff's office.

The mudslides were part of an evolving natural disaster. They followed heavy rains in Santa Barbara County, where the enormous Thomas fire burned vegetation off the hillsides. The mud swept homes off their foundations and caused a 30-square-mile debris flow. U.S. Route 101, California's primary coastal route, remains partially shut down.

"The mud and debris flow has completely isolated places like Santa Barbara," Jonathan Bastian of member station KCRW told NPR's Scott Simon. "It's posing these kind of major problems. Santa Barbara has the closest trauma center to the scene of the disaster ... and a lot of nurses that work there just simply couldn't get to work. So lot of them started to jump on boats that were ferrying around the wreckage so they could actually get there."

Many of the deaths and injuries occurred at locations that were not under mandatory evacuation for flooding, but weeks earlier, said areas were evacuated during a series of fires.

"Safety officials just didn't see this happening," said Bastian. "It's creating a lot of anger and finger-pointing."

Today, residents of Montecito, Calif., are being told to evacuate as emergency crews turn off gas and power to continue to clear mud and debris.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.