15 dead after flooding and mudslides force thousands to flee in California

ABCNews.com(SANTA BARBARA, Calif.) -- At least 15 people are dead and more than 20 are injured in California from weather-related incidents, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday. The southern part of the state has been drenched with severe rain just weeks after several fires tore through the area.

Flash flooding, debris flow and mudslides are punishing the communities hit hard by the Thomas and La Tuna fires, prompting "dozens and dozens" of rescues on the ground, a spokesperson from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department told ABC News.

Many more are feared to be dead and buried beneath the mud, a California fire crew who has conducted up to 70 rescues alone told ABC News Tuesday afternoon.

One of those killed was Roy Rohter, the founder of the St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, according to the Catholic school's headmaster, Michael Van Hecke, the Associated Press reported. Rohter's wife was injured by the mudslide.

Montecito alone saw heavy rainfall in a short amount of time. About a third of the rain that has fallen in the last 24 hours in Montecito fell in just 5 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

Because hundreds of thousands of acres were charred in the fires, the influx of water has nowhere to go.

Some homes in Montecito's affluent community have been ripped from their foundations as a result of the torrential conditions. Several dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged, officials said.

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management said Tuesday night the city of Montecito would be without potable water, electricity and sanitation "for an extended period of time."

Local fire officials reported rescuing several people in the area, including a mother and her daughter who were caked in mud. About two dozen people in Santa Barbara County are unaccounted for, officials said.

The Claffey family in Carpinteria was forced to evacuate its home last month. After moving back in, family members were told to evacuate again because of the rain.

"If our house was flooded it would be devastating. Absolutely devastating," Maureen Claffey told ABC News.

Another family told ABC News that they witnessed neighbors floating away from their homes on mattresses and others holding on to trees for hours in a whirlpool of frigid mud.

The record rains started coming down on Monday, soaking northern cities like San Francisco and Sacramento. First responders put on skies to help the stranded since many roads and thruways have become raging rivers.

A 14-year-old girl was "trapped for hours" in mud-soaked rubble on Hot Springs Road and then pulled to safety in a triumphant moment.

Power in the area has also been cut, according to ABC News affiliate KEYT.

More rescues were expected and evacuations are rising, officials said.

The worst of the storm will move inland, with the heavy rain letting up sometime around dinner time or even before, according to the National Weather Service. Flash flood watches will remain in effect across portions of Southern California, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara until then.

So far, rainfall totals Tuesday afternoon range from 3 to 5 inches in the mountains in Ventura County and 2 to 3 inches in the mountains of Santa Barbara County, with higher totals within the areas burned by the Thomas fire in both counties.

Rainfall rates exceeding one inch per hour at times contributed to the damaging mudslides in portions of Southern California.

The weather has snarled drivers and first responders attempting to aid storm victims.

Routes in and out of Santa Barbara have been shut down from the south, and various roadways have been swallowed by the floods.

The only way into some of the washed-out homes is by air.

Ventura's Air Squad 6 dedicated helicopters to join Santa Barbara in the rescue effort.

Officials told ABC News they’ve been called to locations but they’re also stuck like thousands of motorists.

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