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101 Freeway, overwhelmed by Montecito mudslide, to remain closed indefinitely

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As authorities continue to search for those missing in the deadly Montecito mudslide disaster, officials announced that U.S. 101 would remain closed indefinitely.

The 101, a key north-south route in California, was tentatively scheduled to reopen on Monday, but cleanup efforts have proved more difficult than expected, Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy said on Saturday.

The freeway “will remain closed until we can deal with water flowing from sheared fire hydrants and until we can ascertain the integrity of that roadway,” McElroy said.

Crews are working day and night to clear the road, but as they pump water away, more flows in.

Capt. Cindy Pontes of the California Highway Patrol in Santa Barbara said she flew over the 101 in a helicopter on Friday, and almost a mile of it was under water so deep that the center divider was not visible.

The opening date is “truly unknown,” she said, especially with more rain expected at the end of next week.

In addition to the highway, many local roads are blocked. McElroy said the big push on Saturday was to clean roads in the Santa Barbara and Montecito areas in order to improve vehicular access.

“As it stands, we’re still having to go in on foot in many areas,” he said.

State Route 192, which cuts across the foothills, is also unsafe in places, and officials are trying to establish an alternate route as soon as possible.

With the 101 closed, hundreds of people have taken to traveling the coast by boat. Two sightseeing companies, Island Packers in Ventura and Condor Express in Santa Barbara, have worked together to turn their vessels into a ferry service between the cities.

Tickets on the Condor Express, a 75-foot catamaran that normally takes tourists whale watching, were in high demand last week with many trips packed with the maximum 127 passengers, according to assistant manager Katie Fitts.

The 90-minute trip over the water was significantly shorter than the more than four-hour journey on the 5, and ferry passengers included firefighters, city workers and medical personnel from Cottage Hospital, she said.

“There are people trying to get to their families that have been struck by this tragedy and people trying to get to work … surgeons and nurses,” Fitts said.

Ticket sales fell off Saturday after Amtrak reopened its Surfliner service, which delivers passengers from Ventura to Santa Barbara in about 45 minutes.

At least 18 people have died in the Montecito mudslides and seven people were still unaccounted for Friday, as hope waned that any survivors remained amid muck, boulders and toppled trees.

Rescuers continued to dig through the tangled wreckage of vehicles and homes, searching for human remains or survivors. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said crews recovered the latest victim, 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel, from his home in the Romero Canyon area about 11:30 a.m. Friday.

Bleckel had previously been listed as missing. The number of missing has fluctuated widely in the aftermath of heavy rains that pounded the Thomas fire burn scar this week and unleashed a torrent of mud, boulders and debris on Tuesday that destroyed scores of homes:

Authorities had said late Thursday that approximately 43 people were unaccounted for, but most of them have since been reported safe, according to Chris Elms, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of Friday evening, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s officials had identified seven people who were still missing.

Elms said crews are still trying to fight their way through roadways made inaccessible by mudflow in the hopes of locating more people. Officials expanded mandatory evacuation zones Thursday because pedestrians and traffic were hindering rescue and repair operations.

Brown said armored vehicles typically used by his SWAT team on barricaded suspects have been useful in reaching muddy areas where people were trapped. Most who had been stranded in their homes have been rescued, he said, including about 300 residents and staff members who were evacuated by rescue workers Thursday from the Casa Dorinda retirement home east of Olive Mill Road.

A Los Angeles Fire Department search-and-rescue team tried to sound an optimistic note — hoping for the best, bracing for the worst. Members used an arsenal of tools, technology and specially trained dogs to probe piles of debris more than 15 feet deep at the southern end of Romero Creek.

“It’s as exhausting, frustrating and tedious as looking for a needle in a haystack,” LAFD Battalion Chief Mark Akahoshi said, while hunched over a topographical map of surrounding terrain studded with ranches and mansions offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

One of the region’s most famous resorts, San Ysidro Ranch, sustained extensive damage in the mudslides, McElroy said Saturday. The luxury hotel, which has counted Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill and honeymooners John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy as guests, is edged by a creek that became a torrent of boulders, toppled trees and muck in the mudslide.

Contractors and crews using earthmovers and dump trucks were streaming into the property Saturday morning. Elroy said many key structures on the property remained standing.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this story.


UPDATES:

11 a.m. This article was updated with information about a ferry service between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

This article was originally posted at 9:25 a.m.

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