The mud cascaded down scorched, blackened slopes still blanketed with ash. With no trees or vegetation to slow the surge it swept rocks and boulders from the Verdugo mountains into a thunderous river.
Jeannette Abney, 88, watched in horror not believing slopes could so quickly turn to sludge and so quickly surround her home in La Tuna canyon.
“Oh God, the rain was terrible, terrible. Outside it was like a war zone, like Niagara Falls. It pushed my big truck 60ft across the road. It sounded like a freight train. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Abney escaped Tuesday’s mudslide in this rural corner of Los Angeles with her two dogs and spoke on Wednesday from an American Red Cross evacuation center. It offered cots, blankets, food and instant coffee. A cool breeze flapped posters declaring “disaster services”.
Swathes of southern California are in need after nature’s latest battering, this time in the form of heavy rains which unleashed massive debris flows, a grim sequel to a record drought and record wildfires.
At least 15 people died in Montecito, a wealthy enclave north-west of LA which suffered the worst. The avalanche buried homes and swept others from their foundations, which in addition to the dead left at least 25 people injured, 24 missing and hundreds marooned, authorities said.
Rescue crews in helicopters plucked survivors from waist-high mud, including a 14-year-old girl. “I thought I was dead for a minute there,” she told them.
“All hell broke loose,” Peter Hartmann, a dentist, told AP. “Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants.” He watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck. “It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud.”
The death toll was expected to rise as search-and-rescue teams took advantage of the storm’s ebbing to scour several dozen damaged and destroyed homes. “Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara county told reporters.
The storm – the first of the rainy season – turned devastating because huge wildfires in recent months charred mountains and canyons, leaving soil unable to efficiently absorb water.
Authorities anticipated the danger and issued evacuations orders in recently burned areas of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Only an estimated 10 to 15% of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara county heeded the warning.
The harrowing consequences rekindled a perennial debate about the Golden State occupying a thin line between fortune and disaster, and the lottery of never knowing which will strike.
“We’ve been dodging bullets and got lucky again,” said Tom Suchner, 63, a car mechanic, as he walked his dog down Kagel canyon. “It was a nice, steady rain. It got rid of a lot of the ash.”
In this part of the Verdugo mountains, a rugged patch of nature on LA’s outskirts, residents woke up on Wednesday to marshy soil and not much worse.
But just a few miles away a mudflow traced a burnt ridgeline and smashed into an affluent neighbourhood lining La Tuna canyon road.
“It was a full river, boulders floating down, hitting cars,” said one resident, Diana Kalaitzian, 45. “I’ve always been more scared of fires but now I think you have to worry more about mud because you don’t see it coming. It’s silent and faster.”
Helicopters hovered as Kalaitzian stood outside her home, suveying the aftermath: sludge in every direction, a landscape overnight turned brown. Neighbours were shovelling sludge.
At one end of the road earth-movers were clearing lanes and imposing some order on the mud. At the other, higher up in the canyon, there was no way for cars to pass and mud-splattered police were bouncing over dirt mountain bikes, inspecting damage.
Kalaitzian’s home escaped but she was braced for a season of anxiety. “You know there’s more to come.”
California has just endured its worst and most expensive wildfire season. The Thomas fire, which encompassed the land around Montecito, burned more than 280,000 acres, the biggest in the state’s modern history.
This followed a five-year-drought – by some measures the worst in a millennium – which emptied reservoirs and parched the countryside.
It ended in 2016 with record rainfall which counterintuitively aggravated last year’s fire season by producing vegetation – fuel. It turned tinder dry last summer, the hottest on record.
So many records in so short a time has convinced many scientists that climate change is a factor.
Elizabeth Terry, 63, a caregiver who lives in a boarding home in the Verdugo mountains, has had to evacuate three times: a wildfire in 2016, another in 2017, then this week’s mudslides.
“California is a wonderful place to live – depending where you live,” she said, speaking from a Red Cross evacuation centre. Terry can’t afford to live in a safer area. “Lord knows I’m trying to move, desperately.”