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Search goes on for Calif. mudslide victims; death toll at 17

| Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, 7:30 p.m.
A firefighter stands on the roof of a house submerged by mud and rocks Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
A firefighter stands on the roof of a house submerged by mud and rocks Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead.
A firefighter walks among the rocks and mud left by a mudslide Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
A firefighter walks among the rocks and mud left by a mudslide Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead.
This photo provided by Ventura County Sheriff's Office shows an arial view of Montecito, Calif., with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Several homes were swept away before dawn Tuesday when mud and debris roared into neighborhoods in Montecito from hillsides stripped of vegetation during a recent wildfire.
This photo provided by Ventura County Sheriff's Office shows an arial view of Montecito, Calif., with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Several homes were swept away before dawn Tuesday when mud and debris roared into neighborhoods in Montecito from hillsides stripped of vegetation during a recent wildfire.
A man is treated by the Los Angeles Fire Department near the Los Angeles River early Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 in Los Angeles.  Crews rescued residents from inundated homes Tuesday as mud and debris from wildfire-scarred hillsides flowed through neighborhoods and onto a key Southern California highway during a powerful winter storm that dropped record rain across the state.
A man is treated by the Los Angeles Fire Department near the Los Angeles River early Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 in Los Angeles. Crews rescued residents from inundated homes Tuesday as mud and debris from wildfire-scarred hillsides flowed through neighborhoods and onto a key Southern California highway during a powerful winter storm that dropped record rain across the state.
A man is hoisted out with the help of a San Bernardino County Sheriff's helicopter on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif. Three people and a dog were rescued by a helicopter after large amounts of rain fell, trapping the group at a homeless encampment in the river.
A man is hoisted out with the help of a San Bernardino County Sheriff's helicopter on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif. Three people and a dog were rescued by a helicopter after large amounts of rain fell, trapping the group at a homeless encampment in the river.
A rescue team removes their boat after a swift water rescue in the Los Angeles River early Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018  at Lake Balboa in Los Angeles.  Crews rescued residents from inundated homes Tuesday as mud and debris from wildfire-scarred hillsides flowed through neighborhoods and onto a key Southern California highway during a powerful winter storm that dropped record rain across the state.
A rescue team removes their boat after a swift water rescue in the Los Angeles River early Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 at Lake Balboa in Los Angeles. Crews rescued residents from inundated homes Tuesday as mud and debris from wildfire-scarred hillsides flowed through neighborhoods and onto a key Southern California highway during a powerful winter storm that dropped record rain across the state.
A women is hoisted out with the help of a San Bernardino County Sheriff's helicopter on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif. Three people and a dog were rescued by a helicopter after large amounts of rain fell, trapping the group at a homeless encampment in the river.
A women is hoisted out with the help of a San Bernardino County Sheriff's helicopter on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif. Three people and a dog were rescued by a helicopter after large amounts of rain fell, trapping the group at a homeless encampment in the river.
This photo provided by Ventura County Sheriff's Office shows an arial view of Montecito, Calif., with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
This photo provided by Ventura County Sheriff's Office shows an arial view of Montecito, Calif., with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
Mud flows in front of a home and left a car stuck along La Tuna Canyon road in Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
Mud flows in front of a home and left a car stuck along La Tuna Canyon road in Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
A member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's swift water rescue team is hoisted back to a helicopter after rescuing three people and a dog on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif.
A member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's swift water rescue team is hoisted back to a helicopter after rescuing three people and a dog on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Santa Ana River and near the borders of Rialto, Colton, and Riverside, Calif.
In this photo provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad through Montecito, Calif. is blocked with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
In this photo provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad through Montecito, Calif. is blocked with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
In this photo provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad through Montecito, Calif, is blocked with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
In this photo provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad through Montecito, Calif, is blocked with mudflow and debris due to heavy rains on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
A structure is smashed against a tree along Hot Springs Road in Montecito, Calif. after getting hit by a flash flood and debris flow on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
A structure is smashed against a tree along Hot Springs Road in Montecito, Calif. after getting hit by a flash flood and debris flow on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

MONTECITO, Calif. — Hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. Seventeen people were confirmed dead and 16 were missing.

Family members anxiously awaited word on loved ones who hadn't been heard from since the onslaught early Tuesday.

"It's just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven't heard from them — we have to find them," said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents' home was wrecked. The couple, Jim and Alice Mitchell, did not heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home to celebrate Jim Mitchell's 89th birthday.

As search dogs clambered on heaps of wood that used to be homes, mud-spattered rescue teams from all over California worked their way through the ruins of Montecito, an enclave of 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

It was left covered with thick muck, boulders, wrecked cars, splintered lumber and tree limbs in a scene Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown likened to a World War I battlefield.

County officials said late Wednesday that the death toll stood at 17 and the number of missing had been lowered to 16. After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 59 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 446.

Overall, 28 people were injured. Twelve remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.

By Wednesday, some 500 searchers had covered about 75 percent of the inundated area, authorities said. They had a long slog ahead, filled with hazards seen and unseen.

"A lot of the street signs are gone, the roads are impassable. It all has to be done on foot," said Deputy Dan Page, chief of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department rescue team.

Rescue crews worked up to 12 hours a day and risked stepping on nails or shattered glass, or being exposed to raw sewage, or dealing with leaking gas, Page said.

"We've gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud," said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief. "The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It's crusty on top but soft underneath, so we're having to be very careful."

Crews marked where bodies were found, often far away from a home, and used that information to guess where other victims might have ended up as the surging mud carried or buried them.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

"We totally thought we were out of the woods," said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. "I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, 'This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.'"

The mudslides were already occurring when Santa Barbara County officials first sent emergency alerts to cellphones in the area, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

For days, the county had issued repeated warnings via social media, news media and emails about the potential for mudslides. But county emergency manager Jeff Gater said officials decided not to use the cellphone push alert system until 3:50 a.m. Tuesday out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered, and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

It could take days or even longer before the work is finished.

"That's always our mentality: 'Hey, we're going to find someone alive,'" Page said. "You never really know. You never know exactly what the human body is capable of."

In 2014, a mudslide in rural Oso in Washington state killed 43 people. The last body was found four months later.

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