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Digging for survivors in river of mud

NBC News’ Michael Okwu reports on the continuing search and rescue effort under way in the area around La Conchita, Calif., after a deadly mudslide.
Television crews, foreground, gather Tuesday in La Conchita, Calif., where this hillside collapsed onto the small coastal community.
Television crews, foreground, gather Tuesday in La Conchita, Calif., where this hillside collapsed onto the small coastal community. Ric Francis / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Up to 13 people were missing Tuesday after a deadly mudslide in La Conchita, a coastal hamlet in Southern California. 

The slide Monday was triggered by the powerful storms that unleashed a record rainfall on the region.

NBC News’ Michael Okwu reports on the continuing “search-and-rescue” effort mission under way in La Conchita.

How is the rescue operating proceeding today?

It is very difficult and rough going. The rescue workers and firefighters, as well as some civilians, lent a hand [Monday] to try to get as many people pulled out of that rubble as quickly as possible.

Overnight of course, the efforts were squarely on the shoulders of official firefighters with the Ventura County Fire Department, as well as other surrounding fire departments. They have been using some sophisticated listening and visual devices which they’ve put into the soil to try to detect any signs of life.

At about 3 a.m. last night they did hear noises, but they couldn’t quite determine what the noises were. The sounds didn’t really bear any fruit. They haven’t rescued anyone since about 5 p.m. Monday afternoon.

Among the injured was a 60-year-old man, who had been buried for up to three hours. Rescue workers say there is still a chance that there are other people buried underneath that rubble.

About 13 people are still unaccounted for at this point, including a mother and her three children.

Firefighters basically say that it’s very delicate work. On one hand, they have to remove some of the heavy material, but at the same time they can’t apply too much pressure on the top of the soil, for fear that potential survivors are just beneath the surface.

How much worse do officials expect the toll to be?

If they expect the toll to rise, nobody is saying that officially.

There is always the possibility that people who are unaccounted for are simply resting some place, that they got stuck on either side of a number of the roadblocks that are set up along the main Highway 101.

Officials are hoping, of course, that’s the case because they want to make sure that the deaths or casualties are minimal. But, at the same time, as each hour passes, and certainly as the days progress here, the likelihood of a higher death count becomes more real.

But, at this point, officials say that they are still very hopeful and the rescuers are still calling this a “search-and-rescue” mission. They are optimistic that they can find people.

What is the biggest concern of the rescue effort now?

The biggest concern is basically in the engineering of the site.

They have to be very careful about the equipment and the material that they move out of the slide, because it’s like a house of cards. If you pull the wrong card, then there is the risk that the whole thing might come crashing down.

There is a concern that if they pull too many pieces of material in the wrong places out of the way, that they are going to cause additional mud slides.

The other concern is that although it appears to be a little more dry than the forecasters were predicting, they was the expectation for close to two inches of more rain around La Conchita today. The concern with that, of course, is that you risk some more flooding, more mudslides, and clearly more misery.

What sort of advanced technology is being used in the rescue effort?

Fire departments and rescue teams often use equipment that is akin to what geological experts use inside the earth, meaning visual and listening devices. For lack of a better way to put it — seismic equipment that can easily detect sound. What the rescuers are looking for and listening for are things that could be somebody making major movements that might give away their location. Somebody coughing or wheezing or trying to talk somewhere beneath the surface.

How are the people in the community coping? How are the rescue workers keeping up morale?

Well if you talk to fire officials, they’ll say that morale is still fairly good. But they are still very, very tired. A lot of these guys worked through the night.

The are trying to work in shifts, but they are clearly very tired. The longer you go without finding anybody — again the last person that they rescued was at 5 p.m. on Monday afternoon — one can only imagine how low the morale gets. But, officially that’s not what firefighters are saying. They say that they are still very, very hopeful.

But in terms of how the community reacting — I’d say that there are people who are just downright sad. But, it would be inaccurate to ignore the fact that there are some people who are a little angry.

Back in 1995, La Conchita was the victim of a mudslide and that mudslide destroyed about nine homes. And the concern there was that officials had allowed for an irrigation system for local avocado and lemons, two big products in this area. There are those that believe that they built a system that jeopardized the town, that would allow for more mudslides. 

The people of the town were assured after the mudslide in 1995 that a retaining wall that had been built would secure them against further mudslides.

Well, that clearly wasn’t the case. But, one could make the argument that no one was expecting five straight days of relentless torrential downpours, but that’s clearly what happened.

There are some residents who appear to be angry. At the same time, it is a community that is definitely pulling together.

Yesterday at the height of the rescue effort, immediately following the mudslide, there were civilians who were joining in along with official members of the fire department to try to pull people out of the rubble. Some people were digging with their hands, digging with any tool they could find. There was one man who was literally shoveling into the earth for hours upon hours, trying to get to the roof of his neighbors house, because he says that he saw his neighbor’s house enveloped by this thing.

So the community has really come out strong and banded together to try to work with the rescue teams.