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Army Corps of Engineers general views mudslide operations

The U.S. 101 freeway remains underwater as clean-up crews work to clear the roads throughout Montecito, Calif., on Jan. 15, 2018, following the deadly Jan. 9 mud-flow and flooding.

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT/AP

By ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: January 20, 2018

MONTECITO, Calif. — The top general of the Army Corps of Engineers has inspected recovery operations at the scene of the devastating flash floods that hit the Southern California community of Montecito last week.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite toured the area Thursday and watched the massive effort to clear piles of rocks, mud and debris that are being loaded into trucks and hauled away around the clock, KEYT-TV reported.

"I feel sorry for the people of California, this is a tough deal," Semonite told reporters. "I think you have to be here to understand it, what people are going through. I sympathize with the people of this region."

The Army Corps of Engineers is focusing on clearing basins that are designed to capture debris that would otherwise flow out of the hills and mountains above the community.

The debris basins need must be emptied to restore capacity before there are more winter rains. A storm passing through California on Friday was bringing significant snow far to the north in the Sierra Nevada but fortunately was expected to bring very little rain, if any, to the Montecito area.

The devastation occurred in the early morning hours of Jan. 9 when a storm dumped a huge amount of rain in a short time on the burn scar of December's 440-square-mile Thomas fire above the community on the south Santa Barbara County coast.

Torrents laden with boulders and debris swept down through neighborhoods and swamped U.S. Highway 101. More than 430 homes were destroyed or damaged, 20 people were killed and three remain missing. Most of the town is still evacuated as crews work to restore water, gas, electrical and sanitation systems.

The highway, the main way for workers, students and tourists to reach Santa Barbara from the south, is not expected to open until next week, but the California Department of Transportation said there has been progress.

About 9,000 cubic yards of material have been removed daily this week, nearly all the mud is gone and Caltrans is turning toward inspection and repair of highway fixtures and drains.

"We understand the impact that the closure of Highway 101 has on the people of California," Caltrans official Sara von Schwind said in a statement. "This is Caltrans' highest priority and we are working diligently to reopen U.S. 101 as safely and quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, a funeral was held Thursday at historic Santa Barbara Mission for a victim, 69-year-old Josephine "Josie" Gower, KEYT reported.

"If you were lucky enough to be invited into her life, you were in for a good time and a lot of love," Hayden Gower said of his mother.

In other developments, the state announced that federal disaster unemployment assistance benefits are available for workers, business owners and self-employed individuals who lost jobs or have had work hours substantially reduced due to wildfires and debris flows in Southern California.

More than 1,000 animals have been rescued since the disaster and efforts continue to try to reunite lost pets with owners, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
 

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commanding general, attends a briefing in Puerto Rico on Dec. 21, 2017. Semonite on Jan. 18, 2018, inspected recovery operations at the scene of the devastating flash floods that hit the Southern California community of Montecito.
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, ST

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