KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
At least 17 people have been killed in mudslides near Montecito. That is a town along the California coast just about a hundred miles northwest of here in Los Angeles. The Santa Barbara County sheriff now says 43 people are missing. One of the people trying to find them is Captain Sara Rathbun. She's with the Los Angeles County search and rescue team. And she's been out looking for people since Monday. She's with us now by phone. Hey, Sara.
SARA RATHBUN: Hi, how's it going?
MCEVERS: All right. Can you just describe where you are and what it looks like?
RATHBUN: I don't think I can do it justice, honestly. I'm sure that you have seen some of the pictures from up here. If you can imagine some of the most pristine, beautiful homes and neighborhoods completely perfect from about your chest height up and then everything below that completely engulfed in mud, that's pretty much what we're seeing here. And the freeway looks more like a lake or a swamp in New Orleans than it does the 101 in Santa Barbara.
MCEVERS: Wow. Have you ever been in a similar situation? I mean, have you seen anything like this?
RATHBUN: You know, the only thing that I can compare this to was the 2011 tsunami earthquake that we responded to in Japan. That earthquake was followed by a tsunami that caused similar damage. But the aftermath was clear by the time we went in. So when we actually accessed those homes, we could see the destruction that the water had caused, but it wasn't really still there. Having to deal with that - the mud and the flooding that's actually still here and still impeding our rescue and recovery - has been quite the challenge.
MCEVERS: Wow. You know, there was just this enormous fire in that same area. The Thomas Fire's the biggest in the state of California. I know that's not something that you actually worked on. But I'm just trying to understand - you know, two people died in that fire, and more people have died in these mudslides. I guess what I'm trying to understand is how it is that so many people could be killed by a mudslide. What happens?
RATHBUN: Well, I think there are things that we can do to prevent fire. But a mudslide is unique in that, number one, it moves just as quickly as fire. But, number two, there's really no way - nothing to put in front of it or do anything to stop it. You just have to get out of its way. And I think that's what the authorities here were struggling with. They mandatorily evacuated many people and put others under voluntary evacuation. And they're feeling the weight of those decisions now, I'm sure, because it really extended into the voluntary evacuation zone.
MCEVERS: And now you're trying to find people. What are some of the challenges?
RATHBUN: Well, movement is a lot slower here. In Japan, we covered nine to 10 miles a day, and that's just not possible here. Sometimes it takes us 10, 15 minutes to go a hundred yards. It's also hard because we're running into residents and neighbors that are asking us where their loved ones are and trying to get us to help them, and we move in those directions. But it just feels so slow.
MCEVERS: What are some of the other hard things? I'm just trying to picture it, like, how you're doing it. You're just walking into people's backyards, but it's not a backyard anymore because it's all mud and debris. And where do you even start?
RATHBUN: Yes. You bring up a good point there. When you walk in someone's backyard and it's no longer a backyard and it's mud and debris up to your thighs - we're slugging through in waders. If you can imagine, like, a fly fisherman's suit, that's kind of what I'm wearing every day. We're carrying tools. And we're sounding in front of us just like we would do on the roof during a fire 'cause as you walk through that backyard - if you imagine it in your mind completely covered with mud, if you don't live there, you may not know there's a pool.
There are manhole covers that have been blown off. So even walking in the street is not necessarily safe when it's covered in mud and you can't see. You can just take one step and disappear - storm drains, et cetera. It's been a learning experience for us to try and make sure that we stay one step ahead safety-wise.
MCEVERS: Have you found anyone?
RATHBUN: No, we still have not. There have been a couple groups that have. We've reunited some pets with their owners, which is a small thing that we can say that we've done.
RATHBUN: But we're still working pretty hard in the areas where a lot of this mud has collected to try and sort through and see what we can find.
MCEVERS: Right. Captain Sara Rathbun of the LA County search and rescue team, thanks a lot for talking to us, and good luck out there.
RATHBUN: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.