Disaster hacks: South American cities harness tech and nature to tackle flooding

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hit with ever-more-frequent torrential rain that triggers worsening flooding and mudslides most years, Rio de Janeiro is looking to an unusual gathering for answers: a hackathon.

Starting Saturday, teams of university students, tech start-up leaders, software developers and computer engineers will try to come up with innovative ways to help the seaside Brazilian city limit its losses as climate change brings wilder weather.

Tech experts at the city hall-led event hope to, for instance, come up with new ways to leverage data from GPS systems already used in the city’s buses to allow emergency services to better understand and monitor floods in real time.

“We know we have problems of floods and heavy rains, and we see an opportunity to use GPS to know where the flooding and landslide incidents are,” said Simone Silva, a mobility advisor at city hall and one of the organizers.

Right now, “at the very local level, we don’t know exactly what happens,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RISING URBANIZATION

Around Latin America, tens of millions of people are at risk from worsening flooding linked to climate change, many of them living in urban slums often built along rivers or on mountain slopes prone to landslides.

About 80% of Latin America’s people live in the region’s urban areas, according to the United Nations.

But across the region, cities are working to cut the risks, harnessing technology, better data and insights from affected communities to come up with new ways to keep people safe.

Flooding is clearly seen as one of the most severe threats. Of 530 cities worldwide that reported their climate hazards in 2018 to CDP, a London-based international environmental non-profit, 71% said floods were their top worry.

Extreme heat came next, at 61%, followed by drought at 36%, according to the study, published last month.

But over half of cities have not carried out risk assessments to map which areas, residents and businesses are under threat from extreme weather, the study found.

“We have seen that cities that take vulnerability assessments, they take six times as many actions to adapt as cities that haven’t done them,” said Kyra Appleby, who heads the CDP’s cities, states and regions team.

Geographic information system (GIS) technology that allows data about hazards and climate risks to be overlayed with existing maps of cities has made it easier for authorities to do risk assessments, she added.

That and other technologies are among the measures being used in a range of cities around Latin America to deal with worsening economic and human losses from floods.

In recent decades, Rio de Janeiro, for instance, has put in place early warning systems to help evacuate people ahead of threats, mapped of floodplain areas, built shelters and conducted emergency drills in slum areas, Appleby said.

The city also has installed cameras to monitor street flooding and set up social media alert systems.

Other cities are introducing digital sensors to try to cut risks. Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, is developing a network of sensors to monitor rainfall and feed back data in real time to the city’s central control centre.

Ensuring climate change adaptation measures are included in all urban planning is crucial, Appleby said, noting that the city of Belo Horizonte, in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, is one of those leading the way.

“It’s in the process of creating a new masterplan for the city and they are integrating all their adaption measures into their masterplan. That is really ahead of the curve,” she said.

To be effective, climate adaption plans must include the input of local communities, according to Anjali Mahendra, head of research at the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“Latin American cities are particularly good with involving communities,” she said.

That’s largely because early urbanization in the region means cities have had longer experience working with informal settlements and other disadvantaged communities, she said.

African and South Asian cities, facing rapid urbanization are “starting to learn from some Latin American cities,” Mahendra said.

Colombia’s second city of Medellin and Ecuador’s capital Quito – which has a climate change panel that includes youth, women and indigenous groups – in particular have worked hard to include local communities in decisions about urban planning and climate risks, said Mahendra.

USING NATURE

To tackle growing flood threats, more investment also is needed in “nature-based solutions” – such as expanding green areas to absorb floodwaters, said Pedro Ribeiro, head of the Urban Flooding Network at C40, a group of cities pushing climate action.

Creating green buffer areas to stem urban sprawl and protecting and restoring degraded ecosystems around cities, including forests, watersheds, grasslands and wetlands, can help slow the movement of water and avoid flooding, he said.

“It’s easier to recover ecosystems that were in the city before building .. and the results are better” than trying to establish wholly new anti-flooding systems, Ribeiro said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by XXXX. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Death toll in South Africa rains approaching 70, official says

Family members speak to a police officer after one of their family member's body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Mariannhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

DURBAN/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Almost 70 people have been killed in South Africa after torrential rains along the eastern coast, an official said on Thursday, and rescuers are still recovering bodies.

KwaZulu-Natal province, where most of the deaths occurred after the downpours led to flooding and mudslides, has heavy rain every year, but they rarely kill so many people in such a short space of time.

A wreckage of a vehicle remains after a body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Marianhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

A wreckage of a vehicle remains after a body was recovered from under the mud after heavy rains caused by flooding in Marianhill near Durban, South Africa, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The number of people killed was “approaching 70”, Lennox Mabaso, a spokesman for the provincial Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs department, said by phone.

“I don’t recall that in history,” he said, attributing the severity of the storm and its impact on the population to climate change.

A Reuters witness saw rescuers come to collect the body of a woman who had been dug out of the mud by locals. Mabaso said a more precise death toll would be given later on Thursday.

Eyewitnesses recounted on Wednesday how flood waters and mudslides crashed through houses, many with people inside, and destroyed roads and other infrastructure.

The rains carved chunks out of hills and roads in the region, with cars, tin roofs and other rubble swept into the deep muddy trenches left behind.

In other places, people buried their dead on muddy hillsides churned up by the storm, marking their resting place with simple wooden crosses.

Vanetia Phakula, a senior forecaster at the South African Weather Service, said the storm was not currently seen as unusual, though the level of rainfall might have been higher than normal.

Over 100 millimeters of rain was recorded as falling at numerous stations within the area between Monday morning and Tuesday, she said.

Phakula said the high death toll could instead be explained by the flooding and mudslides occurring in more highly populated areas.

“Hence the death toll is what it is today,” she said.

While more rain was expected on Thursday it was not expected to be heavy, and the service was forecasting dry weather in most areas by Friday, she added.

(Reporting by Rogan Ward in Durban and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

‘Pineapple Express’ storm douses California with rain, snow

Snow capped mountains are seen behind the downtown Los Angeles skyline, California, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – A Pacific storm system known as the “Pineapple Express” threatened to dump up to 8 inches of rain and 8 feet of snow on areas of California, raising risks of flooding and mudslides, meteorologists said on Wednesday.

“The (Pineapple) Express is no joke,” said Bob Oravec, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland of the strongest weather system of the season.

The weather system, also known as an atmospheric river, gets its name from the flow of moisture that periodically heads east from waters adjacent to the Hawaiian Islands to soak the U.S. West Coast. It blanketed parts of Hawaii with snow over the weekend and is expected to drench California.

The San Francisco Bay area could be hit by flash flooding and falling trees as saturated ground gets up to 8 inches more rain and strong winds blow in, the weather service said.

“We’re talking 3 to 5 inches of rain in San Francisco and coastal areas in just the next 24 hours, and more on into Friday,” Oravec said.

To the northeast in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, passes could see between 80 and 100 inches (approximately 7 to 8 feet) of snow through Friday.

Valley areas face flood watches over fears the relatively warm Pineapple Express system could initially drench areas as high as Lake Tahoe with rain, melting snow and swelling rivers.

WILDFIRE BURN AREAS

The Central and Southern California coast can expect flash flooding and possible mudslides near recent wildfire burn areas, the NWS reported.

Oravec said that the problem is not just the amount of rain, but the fact that it will hit in a short amount of time.

“It’s going to be heavy and fast,” he said. “Debris flows and mudslides are a risk in any area scorched by the wildfires. There’s little to no vegetation to slow that water down.”

Up to 2 inches of rain was expected in the Los Angeles area between Tuesday evening and Thursday morning, the weather service said.

A string of winter storms has swelled snowpack in California to above-average levels, delighting farmers in need of water and skiers in search of powder.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay, additional reporting by Rich McKay, editing by Louise Heavens)

Rain helps douse California fires, but raises landslide risk

Vanthy Bizzle hands some small religious figurines to her husband Brett Bizzle in the remains of their home after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced them to evacuate in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

By Elijah Nouvelage

CHICO, Calif. (Reuters) – More rain is forecast for northern California over the weekend, boosting firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the last of the wildfires that have raged there for two weeks, but raises the risk of flash floods and landslides in the scorched Sierra Nevada foothills.

The wet weather is also expected to complicate efforts to locate victims of what is called the Camp Fire, which virtually obliterated the city of Paradise, 175 miles (280 km) northeast of San Francisco, on Nov. 8.

Between 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.5 cm) of rain is expected to fall between Friday and Sunday, adding to the 3 inches that already fell this week, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

“Flash floods and debris flows will be a particular threat in the wildfire burn areas,” the NWS said in a notice warning of the risk of flash floods through late Friday afternoon. “Heavy rainfall at times is possible over the burn areas with the greatest threat expected today.”

That risk is low for thousands of evacuees who have fled the Camp Fire and are sheltering outside areas prone to mudslides.

At least 84 people died in the Camp Fire which started more than two weeks ago, making it one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires in the last 100 years. Paradise was a popular destination for retirees and two-thirds of the victims named so far were aged over 65.

As many as 560 people are still unaccounted for. That number has fluctuated widely over the past week, hitting a high of more than 1,200 over last weekend.

The fire was 95 percent contained across 154,000 acres, officials said late Thursday.

“All containment lines continued to hold throughout the day with the rain assisting in extinguishing hot spots and smoldering fire,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said late Thursday.

More than 800 volunteers and police officers spent the Thanksgiving holiday combing through the wreckage, searching for the remains of victims killed in the blaze as the ongoing rains looked set to complicate their work.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said the rain would make going through debris more difficult, but he was less concerned about remains washing away than the headaches posed by mud.

He has also warned that as all that remains of victims may be “very small bone fragments,” some of them may never be found.

The county has crews working around the clock laying sand bags and bags of hay to prevent debris from burnt homes being washed into streams and polluting the water supply.

Stanley Miniszewski Sr. uses a burnt golf club to look for a pair of expensive dentures in the remains of his RV after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced him to evacuate as his friend Merrill Jackson looks on at Pine Ridge Park in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Stanley Miniszewski Sr. uses a burnt golf club to look for a pair of expensive dentures in the remains of his RV after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced him to evacuate as his friend Merrill Jackson looks on at Pine Ridge Park in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

“We’re doing everything we can to prepare for this,” Butte County assistant director for public works Radley Ott told KRCR TV.

Hundreds of people forced to flee Paradise spent Thanksgiving in warehouses in the nearby city of Chico. Celebrity chef Jose Andres was among the volunteers bringing some festive cheer by cooking Thanksgiving meals for evacuees.

The cause of the Camp Fire, which destroyed more than 13,500 homes, remains under investigation.

A separate California wildfire – the Woolsey Fire, which killed three people and threatened the wealthy beachfront enclave of Malibu near Los Angeles – was declared 100-percent contained on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Elijah Nouvelage; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Phil Berlowitz)

Expected rains could hinder search for California wildfire victims

Lidia Steineman, who lost her home, prays during a vigil for the lives and community lost to the Camp Fire at the First Christian Church of Chico in Chico, California, November 18, 2018. Noah Berger/Pool via REUTERS

By Jonathan Allen and Nick Carey

(Reuters) – Heavy rains are expected in northern California on Tuesday, raising the risk of mudslides and hindering the search for more victims of the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history as nearly 1,000 people remain listed as missing.

Remains of 79 victims have been recovered since the Camp Fire erupted on Nov. 8 and largely obliterated the Sierra foothills town of Paradise, a community of nearly 27,000 people about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.

The missing persons list kept by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office still has 993 names on it. That number has fluctuated dramatically over the past week as additional people were reported missing, or as some initially listed as unaccounted for either turn up alive or are identified among the dead.

Sheriff Kory Honea has said some people have been added to the list more than once at times under variant spellings of their names.

As of Monday, the fire has torched more than 151,000 acres (61,100 hectares) of parched scrub and trees, incinerating about 12,000 homes along the way, Cal Fire said.

Containment lines have been built around 70 percent of its perimeter, according to the agency.

Efforts to further suppress the flames were likely to benefit from a storm expected to dump as much as 4 inches (10 cm) of rain north of San Francisco between late Tuesday and Friday, said Patrick Burke, a National Weather Service forecaster.

‘MUDDY, MUSHY MESS’

But heavy showers risk setting off mudslides in newly burned areas while also making it more difficult for forensic teams sifting through cinders and debris for additional human remains.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder of the California-based consulting company Identifinders International, said rain would turn the site into a “muddy, mushy mess”, slick with wet ash.

Pathologists from the University of Nevada, Reno worked through the weekend as firefighters peeled back debris, collecting bits of burned bones and photographing everything that might help identify victims.

The risk of mudslides could also increase the misery of the evacuees, some of whom are living in tents or camping out of their cars. Residents who only recently were permitted back in homes that survived the fire may be ordered to evacuate again if they live downslope from badly burned areas.

Intense fire over the slopes of canyons, hills and mountains makes them more prone to landslides, by burning away vegetation and organic material that normally holds soil in place. The fire also creates a hard, waxy surface that tends to repel rather than absorb water.

The result can be a heavy runoff of rainwater mixed with mud, boulders, trees and other debris that flows downhill with tremendous force, said Jason Kean, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Those debris flows have the consistency of wet concrete and move faster than you can run,” he said. “It’s like a flood on steroids … and a big one can take out two-story buildings.”

The number of residents needing temporary shelter was unclear, but as many as 52,000 people were under evacuation orders at the height of the firestorm last week.

Nearly 500 miles south of Paradise near Malibu, west of Los Angeles, at least two inches of rain are expected to fall on a second fire, the Woolsey, which has killed three people. That blaze was 94 percent contained by Monday morning.

The cause of both fires is under investigation, but electric utilities reported localized equipment problems around the time they broke out.

PG&E has said it could face liability that exceeds its insurance coverage if its equipment were found to have caused the Camp Fire.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by David Stamp)

Tropical Storm Rosa will still pack a punch to southern California, Arizona

Hurricane Rosa is shown from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) GOES East satelite over the eastern Pacific Ocean on September 27, 2018, in this image provided September 28, 2018. Image taken September 27, 2018. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Rosa diminished from a Pacific hurricane over the weekend, but will still bring strong winds and dangerous rip currents to Southern California on Monday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

It could also bring life-threatening flash floods to central Arizona over the next few days, the NHC added.

“This storm still has a punch, it’s still dangerous,” said David Roth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Swells generated by Rosa on Monday are affecting the coasts of southwestern Mexico, the west coast of the Baja California peninsula and southern California through Tuesday, the weather service said in an advisory.

“We’re already getting rains in southern California through southwest Arizona,” Roth said.

Baja California and southern California could receive 3 to 6 inches of rain, with isolated spots of 10 inches in the next few days. The desert southwest of Arizona could get up to 4 inches of rain, potentially bringing flash floods and mud slides, Roth said.

Rosa was packing 50 mph (85 kmh) winds and was about 140 miles (225 km) west southwest of Punta Eugenia, Mexico at 2 a.m. Monday, Pacific time, the NHC said.

It is expected to diminish in strength as it makes landfall on Monday night and its remnants are expected to move across the southwestern desert on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Gaerth Jones)

‘Four’easter’ pounds U.S. East as Californians wary of mudslides

A woman holds an umbrella as she walks toward the Washington Monument during a snowstorm in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. East’s fourth major snowstorm this month brought heavy snow on Wednesday, snarling flights and commuter travel, closing schools and triggering emergency declarations in several states.

The storm will have passed over the Northeast by dawn Thursday. By then, it will have dumped 8 inches of snow on Philadelphia, 12 inches on New York City, and 17 inches over northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, said Weather Prediction Center meteorologist Marc Chenard.

The storm faded as it reached New England, which received less snow than had been forecast, Chenard said.

The wintry blast on the second day of spring was dubbed “four’easter” by some media outlets because it struck after three previous storms this month. Those nor’easters left nine dead and more than 2 million homes and businesses without power.

While he offered no guarantees, Chenard told Reuters: “At this point, I would say there is a good chance this is the last” Northeast snowstorm for March.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo declared local emergencies for New York City and five nearby counties.

Schools in the largest U.S. school district in New York City will reopen on Thursday after being shut on Wednesday, city officials said.

“Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to go out,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Twitter on Wednesday. Murphy on Tuesday declared a state of emergency as crews cleared roadways and transit bus service was suspended statewide.

Murphy said at least one death was caused by the storm in a traffic crash, NJ.com reported, and the New York Daily News reported that a woman was killed on Long Island in another traffic accident.

Delaware Governor John Carney also declared a state of emergency for Wednesday.

Throughout the East Coast, many other buses and trains, including some Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail routes, that millions of people rely on to commute to and from work and school also canceled service on Wednesday.

With many commuters staying home, New York City’s normally bustling Times Square was sedate.

“We’re not going to let the snow get in the way of our snow day,” said Cheryl Mandelbaum, 30, an elementary school teacher who was taking pictures with a friend, another teacher who had the day off.

Several inches of snowfall in Washington and its suburbs forced the closure of federal government offices, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The office also said federal agencies told workers to arrive two hours later than usual on Thursday, work remotely or take the day off.

Washington schools were also closed, and children in Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey and Pittsburgh also enjoyed a snow day. In Boston, students were told to trudge to school.

The National Weather Service said that farther inland, snow also blanketed parts of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

Airlines scrapped 4,444 flights within, into and out of the United States, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, and 3,206 U.S. flights were delayed.

As the storm ends for the Northeast on Thursday morning, parts of coastal California will be poised for possible mudslides.

About 25,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Santa Barbara officials said on Wednesday night. The evacuations are called mainly in hillside areas burned by winter wildfires and where in January 21 people were killed in mudslides.

No one had been hurt by Wednesday night, said Kelly Hoover of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, who added that heavy rains were expected from 5 to 11 a.m. on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Alana Wise and Scott DiSavino in New York, Bernadette Baum in Montclair, New Jersey, Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Keith Coffman in Denver, Eric Walsh in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Himani Sarkar)

Major highway reopened as California mudslides toll climbs to 21

Workers on the 101 Highway clear mud and debris from the roadway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018.

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – California’s iconic Highway 101 in Santa Barbara reopened on Sunday nearly two weeks after it was covered with 12 feet (3.7 meters) of debris from mudslides, and a day after the discovery of a missing woman’s body pushed the death toll to 21.

Torrential rains triggered the Jan. 9 mudslides, which injured dozens more people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings around the affluent community of Montecito, 85 miles (137 km) northwest of Los Angeles.

The reopening of the busy north-south coastal highway followed what the state transportation agency Caltrans called a “Herculean effort,” and was expected to ease hours-long detours and traffic chaos that bedeviled commuters.

Cleanup crews had been working around the clock in 12-hour shifts, officials said, while ferry boats had been making commuter runs twice a day between Santa Barbara and Ventura to help residents trying to get to work.

Search and rescue teams continued working with dogs on Sunday in Montecito to look for a two-year-old and a 17-year-old who are still missing, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

On Saturday the teams found the body of missing 28-year-old Faviola Benitez Calderon, of Montecito. She belonged to a family that lost several members in the disaster.

“The Sheriff’s Office wants to express our deepest condolences to the Benitez family, who were already mourning the loss of Faviola’s 10-year-old son, Jonathan Benitez and his cousin 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, as well as Kailly’s mother, 27-year-old Marilyn Ramos,” the office said in a statement.

The discovery of Calderon’s body brought the number of fatalities to 21. The toll had already marked the greatest loss of life from a California mudslide in at least 13 years.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Search for survivors of devastating California mudslide enters third day

Damaged properties are seen after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 11, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – The search for survivors from a devastating Southern California mudslide that has killed at least 17 people moved into its third day on Friday, with some 700 rescue workers expecting to find more dead victims.

Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slide struck before dawn on Tuesday, when a wall of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides that were denuded last month by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.

“Realistically we suspect we are going to have the discovery of more people killed in this incident,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Thursday news briefing, adding that he was hoping to find “miracle” survivors.

Brown said 43 people remain missing, although some may just be out of communication.

In one of the hardest hit areas, the affluent seaside community of Montecito, the devastation wrought by the slide and the gruesome undertaking faced by emergency crews was evident.

Neighborhoods were littered with uprooted trees and downed power lines, and front yards in homes filled with mud were strewn with boulders.

Elsewhere, cars carried away by the flow were perched on mounds of earth and mangled garage doors crushed by the mud rested at odd angles.

The cause of death for all 17 victims who perished will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

The dead victims range in age from three to 89.

Josephine Gower, 69, died when she opened the door to her home, her son, Hayden Gower, told NBC station KSBY. Her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower confirmed Gower’s death in a Facebook post. Her body was found that night, near a highway hit by the slide.

“I told her to stay on the second floor, but she went downstairs and opened the door and just got swept away,” Hayden Gower said. “I should have just told her to leave. You just don’t even think that this is possible.”

The sheriff’s office also expanded the evacuation zone in the Montecito area on Thursday, as traffic on the already-clogged roads is hindering efforts by rescue and repair crews to access the devastation.

Rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing in a disaster zone littered with the remnants of hundreds of damaged or destroyed homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted a request on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown for expanded financial aid that was first allocated for the Thomas Fire, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“This declaration ensures that federal funds are available for emergency response and eligible disaster recovery costs,” the governor’s statement said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

California mudslide death toll up to 15 as rescues continue

Emergency personnel carry a woman rescued from a collapsed house after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California rescuers worked through the night plucking stranded Santa Barbara residents from mudslides that have killed at least 15 people and devastated the coastal community after it was drenched by rain, authorities said on Wednesday.

The death toll could go higher still as rescuers continued searching for victims, mostly in the upscale enclave of Montecito – where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles – officials warned.

“We don’t know how many additional people are still trapped,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on the “CBS This Morning” program. “We know there are some, and we’re still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive.”

An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Ventura County Sheriff’s Office/via REUTERS

The mudslides followed an ordeal of fire and water for the area northwest of Los Angeles. A torrential downpour on Tuesday soaked the area, which was left vulnerable after much of its vegetation burned in the state’s largest wildfire last month.

Forecasters were calling for clear skies on Wednesday.

Emergency workers began their task on Tuesday using search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive on Tuesday after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I thought I was dead there for a minute,” the teenager Lauren Cantin, covered in mud, told NBC News after workers spent six hours rescuing her.

Rescuers worked through the night, searching for victims amid the dozens of homes that were destroyed, and using helicopters to lift more than 50 stranded residents from the mud.

“We’re finding people continuously,” said Yaneris Muniz, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center. “We had a helicopter and several crews out all night, and now that it’s day, we’ll be able to intensify those searches.”

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara News-Press via REUTERS

The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles south of the latest disaster.

Last month’s wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some local residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)