We are now moving this operation from a rescue operation to a re-establishment of the community here. Now it’s time to rebuild the community and that is what we are here to do.
Bob Roper, Ventura County fire chief
After a frantic around-the-clock search for survivors of a massive mudslide that buried part of this coastal town, search and rescue efforts were called off Thursday afternoon after officials said everyone who had been reported missing had been accounted for and that the chances of anyone still surviving were almost nonexistent.
“We are now moving this operation from a rescue operation to a re-establishment of the community here,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper. “Now it’s time to rebuild the community and that is what we are here to do.”
The announcement came several hours after rescue workers were pulled off the mountain of mud and debris because of shifts of the unstable hillside and fears of further slides. One part of the muddy hillside shifted six feet during the early morning hours, prompting a halt to rescue operations which had been going on since the Monday afternoon slide.
Rescue workers had been continuing their search in the area where the ground shifted.
Salvation Army emergency disaster services (EDS) teams were on the scene serving meals and providing pastoral counseling to emergency response workers. The Salvation Army was also assisting residents who are staying in a temporary shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
In addition, The Salvation Army was working with the American Red Cross to provide clothing to some 100 individuals in Santa Clarita who were abruptly evacuated to a temporary shelter from their homes, having to leave with little or no possessions.
Faith-based disaster response groups reported they were gathering information from their affiliates and local faith-community partners not only in the mudslide-wracked town but also in other flood-affected areas of California. "Immediate and long-term housing needs may exist for those families whose homes have been washed away and buried by mud," reported Lutheran Disaster Response.
About 600 rescue workers have been searching nearly round-the-clock through a sea of mud 30 feet deep. At least 15 homes were destroyed and 16 others damaged in a four-block area of the coastal hamlet. Ten people were killed.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the devastated area on Wednesday and met with affected residents and rescue workers. He declared Ventura County a disaster area and vowed to help rebuild the town.
Officials in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, areas both deluged by five days of nearly non-stop rain, looked to the governor‘s office to issue disaster declarations for their areas as well.
Roper announced that the search and recovery effort in La Conchita, a small Ventura County town nestled between the Pacific Ocean and towering hillsides, was ending.
“. . . This is based upon there are no more confirmed missing” and that the shifting earth would have cut off oxygen to any “voids” or air pockets, making survivability unlikely, Roper said.
“. . .Under the medical director’s advice, survivability at this point does not exist at a very high level,” he said, noting that the last person brought out alive was 56 hours ago.
Officials said Highway 101, which has remained closed at La Conchita since Monday, was scheduled to reopen by noon Friday.
The bodies of a 37-year-old mother and her three young children, ages 2, 6 and 10, were the last victims to be pulled from the debris on Wednesday.
Rescue workers, digging with shovels, plastic buckets and by hand, used search dogs, fiber-optic cameras and sophisticated listening devices to try to locate survivors.
The sea of mud unleashed from a rain soaked and unstable hillside crashed down on the town without warning after five days of nearly non-stop rain which deluged the Southern California area.
At least 10 people were injured, two critically, when the mudslide hit at 2:05 p.m. and buried residences on top of each other in a sea of mud.
“I saw it coming,” said 28-year-old Marco Roldan. “I thought I was gone. It was coming down with such speed. I just ran.”
“It sounded like fireworks,” added Chris Riley, 21. “I saw this big dust cloud and felt the ground move. I could feel the earth shake.”
The mudslide occurred shortly after officials had begun a voluntary evacuation of the town which sits just off Highway 101 about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. The evacuation was begun after mud and debris began blocking the highway, forcing the closure of the road. Concrete barriers along the roadway were washed away and the much of the highway was a thick gooey mess.
At least 28 deaths in California have been blamed on five days of rain. The storms dumped more than 25 inches of rain in some areas within a four-day period, according to the National Weather Service.
With the weather clearing and water receding, roads and highways that had been closed for days began to reopen throughout the region on Thursday.
La Conchita residents are no strangers to the disasters. In 1995, a mudslide destroyed about a dozen homes in the town. No deaths or injuries were reported.
A retaining wall that was erected after the 1995 mudslide was washed away in the latest slide. Officials said the retaining wall was designed to catch debris, not prevent a mudslide like the one that occurred Monday.
Several residents refused to leave their homes after the latest mudslides. They remained in their homes despite having no electricity, running water or gas.
The mudslide in La Conchita was the worst of the weather-related incidents reported in Southern California.
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