DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Search and rescue crews are slowly making their way into these areas that were hard hit by mudslides in Southern California. In Santa Barbara County, a 30-square-mile debris flow in the town of Montecito has killed at least 17 people, and that includes several children. The number of missing is in the dozens.
Reporter Stephanie O'Neill followed a crew of firefighters as they were looking for survivors.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: As rescue vehicles and earthmoving tractors worked to clear debris-laden Highway 192 in Montecito, Ventura County fire chief John McNeil surveys the wreckage in this once-pristine neighborhood.
JOHN MCNEIL: It was thick and lush and, you know, creeks separating houses. And now it's completely opened up. I mean, the only thing that looks like it's still here are some of the trees that survived the flows. But I mean, there's boulders the size of our vehicles, if not bigger.
O'NEILL: Boulders that were pushed down wildfire-scarred mountains by a deluge of rain early Tuesday morning along with a massive debris flow. Now a thick blanket of mud, rocks, tree trunks and shards of homes that no longer exist blanket the ground for as far as the eye can see. The flow peeled back the roof of one home and busted the walls out of others. On one side street, every home has disappeared. Only mud and boulders remain. Still, McGrath says, hope remains for survivors.
BRIAN MCGRATH: It's not uncommon that we find people that have survived in a hidden space or some kind of confined space.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)
O'NEILL: Ventura County firefighter Brian McGrath breaks open a sliding glass door on the backside of a house. Its fire alarm pierces the air as he and his partners probe the waist-high mud with sophisticated listening devices. With a camera on a stick, they search behind and under furniture. I ask McGrath how they know where to look.
MCGRATH: The thing is to look at where the mud would push them. And you start searching there.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ALARM BEEPING)
O'NEILL: Have you found anybody in your searches yet?
MCGRATH: Nobody alive, no.
O'NEILL: We continue to the next house, plowing slowly through sticky, quicksand-like mud that tries to suck the boots off our feet. We step over a downed power line, one of the many hazards rescuers here face. And McGrath points out more overhead.
MCGRATH: Can you duck?
O'NEILL: I can duck.
MCGRATH: Because there's a power line.
O'NEILL: OK. I definitely can duck.
Next door, retired doctor John Crowder inspects his home. He put plywood around all doors, and the mud stayed outside his house. He learned that trick after a 1969 flood that rolled boulders and pushed mud - albeit far less - through the neighborhood. Crowder spent this day surveying the damage around him.
JOHN CROWDER: I went around, looked at my neighbors' houses. And I called them and told them what's going on. So I was the volunteer to come in here.
O'NEILL: Seeing most of his neighbors' homes destroyed shocked him. Montecito resident Daniel Cabe feels the same. He, like many here, was first awakened Tuesday morning by a gas explosion and house fires, likely caused by the mud and debris breaking gas lines. Cabe's home, situated on a hill, escaped harm.
DANIEL CABE: But all around us is just destruction and houses just wiped off the earth and new rivers where there wasn't before. And it's just - it's hard to describe. It's hard to show in pictures and video. You really can't get an idea unless you see it.
O'NEILL: And concerns continue that more rain will bring more destruction.
For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Montecito, Calif.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.