Rescue crews in Southern California have worked through the night, using dogs and scanners to comb through tons of debris for survivors from deadly mudslides that struck along the state's picturesque coastal communities.
Seventeen people were confirmed dead on Thursday after a wall of mud roared down hillsides two days earlier in the scenic area between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, according to Santa Barbara County authorities. The mudslides destroyed about 100 homes and injured 28 people.
"We have crews out there," said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "They've been working 24 hours a day."
There were mixed reports about how many were still missing, with the number jumping from 17 to 48, according to Associated Press.
The number has fluctuated since the disaster struck in the early morning darkness Tuesday and was as low as 16 on Wednesday evening. The new count raised fears that the disaster was far worse than authorities imagined.
About 500 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters, and thermal imaging equipment were on the scene. On Wednesday, dogs helped crews rescue 10 stranded residents, Anderson said.
Search and rescue efforts have been slow as crews have to navigate through waist-deep mud, fallen trees, boulders and other debris.
The mudslides, triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month.
Among the damaged properties were historic hotels and the homes of celebrities, including media mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who both live in the upscale hillside community of Montecito.
DeGeneres said on her talk show on Thursday that the picturesque town of 9000 is a "tight-knit" community.
"It's not just a wealthy community, it's filled with a lot of different types of people from all backgrounds," she said. "And there are families missing, there are people who are missing family members ... it's catastrophic."