Seven people were killed and at least nine others, including several children, were missing late on Friday after walls of mud spawned by torrential rains overran two California campgrounds in the United States.
Avalanches of mud carrying entire trees and huge boulders roared down hillsides that were stripped bare by California’s worst wildfires to date two months ago.
Several of those missing were children from six months to 16 years old who had been spending Christmas Day in a camping area owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, said sheriff’s spokesman Chip Patterson.
He said efforts were continuing to find those missing, but rescuers were losing hope due to the cold temperatures and time since the mudslides.
“These numbers may fluctuate as time goes on, but we are pretty comfortable with what we found from the survivors,” Patterson told reporters.
“We still have hope, we’re still looking for survivors, but it’s getting tougher all the time,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the group at the Saint Sofia campground, about 100km east of Los Angeles, had not been taking part in any church-organised activity and were guests of the caretaker, who was also missing.
“Apparently these people were all family and friends of the caretaker to Saint Sophia Camp and were all up there for the holidays … and obviously got caught in the flood and the mudslide,” Patterson said.
Another 14 people were injured in the mudslides, but all except one were treated at a local hospital and released.
Fifty-seven people were rescued from a second campground 8km away near the town of Devore late on Thursday after the landslides began, creating a roar survivors said sounded like a tornado or freight train.
Dozens of rescuers armed with sniffer dogs were frantically searching for victims and survivors of the latest natural disaster to hit the most populous US state, after fires and a 6,5-magnitude earthquake that killed two people in central California last week.
Walls of mud measuring up to 4,5m bore down on the campsites and surrounding homes in the mountainous area ravaged by flames in October.
“They got a one-two punch: fires and now floods,” said local resident Warren Dorsett. “I can’t recognise anything down there.”
The mudslides, laden with huge trees, wreckage and boulders, tore down hillsides, carrying away everything in their paths, filling a canyon, submerging roads and washing away at least two homes.
More than 7,6cm of rain fell on Thursday, creating poor visibility and “impossible” conditions for rescuers overnight, but their task was eased as the weather cleared.
But conditions remained extremely dangerous on the unstable hillsides, with workers negotiating quicksand-like conditions to locate victims and survivors.
“Two buildings washed away and we do believe that there were folks in one of the buildings,” said San Bernardino Fire Department spokesman Tracey Martinez. “Folks had no warning.
“There was a good 15 feet of mud and debris, lots of large trees, a lot of boulders. There is nothing to hold the roots of the trees in, they’re just falling over. It was like a flash flood.”
Other mudslides and flash floods struck elsewhere in southern California as the usually dry region experienced its first rainy Christmas in 20 years.
Emergency service officials had warned rockslides and mudslides were extremely likely after rains on the mountainous areas where wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres and killed four people in October.
Highways across the stricken area were blocked and closed to all but rescuers. — AFP