California storm: Cars swept away, body pinned against home

|     Christopher Weber     |


LOS ANGELES (AP) — In the dark of night, Thomas Tighe saw two vehicles slowly being swept away by a river of mud and debris flowing down the road in front of his house in Montecito, California.

Daybreak brought a more jarring scene: a body pinned against his neighbour’s home by a wall of muck.

Tighe is CEO of Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara, California-based charitable organisation that helps disaster victims. This time, the disaster was “literally in my backyard, and front yard,” he said by phone from Montecito, about 145 kilometres northwest of Los Angeles.

The scene left Tighe shaken. His voice quivered and he paused several times as he described seeing the body, repeating several times it’s “just so devastating.”

At least 13 people were killed Tuesday as homes were swept away in the debris flow that formed as rain rushed off hills in Montecito left bare last month by the state’s largest-ever wildfire.

A structure is smashed against a tree along Hot Springs Road in Montecito, California after getting hit by a flash flood and debris flow on January 9. – PHOTOS: AP
This undated photo provided by Michael Van Hecke shows Roy Rohter, a former real estate broker who founded St Augustine Academy in Ventura, who was reported killed on January 8 as a result of flash flooding in Southern California

Those killed included Roy Rohter, a former real estate broker who founded St Augustine Academy, a K-12 school in Ventura, Headmaster Michael Van Hecke told The Associated Press.

“Roy believed intensely in the power of education,” Van Hecke said.

“He’s been a deep supporter of the school in every way and a mentor to me personally, to the faculty and to the kids.”

Rohter’s wife, Theresa, was rescued by firefighters from their home and was taken to a hospital with several broken bones, Van Hecke said.

Last month, the Rohters were among thousands forced from their home by the wildfire and spent a week living with Van Hecke and his family.

Tighe, whose charity provided breathing masks to residents during the fire, said he was outside his home around 3.30am checking downspouts when the rain intensified.

“I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling, an ominous sound that I knew was the boulders moving as the mud was rising,” he said.

Two of his cars that had been in the driveway already were swept away, and he saw two other vehicles drifting down the road.

With his street thick with rushing mud it was too late to heed the area’s voluntary evacuation advisory so he woke his wife and children and prepared to get them up to the roof.

“I tried not to panic them, but I panicked them,” Tighe said.

For the next three hours he and his neighbours did what they could to keep their houses from being inundated. When daylight came the devastation came into focus.

He watched in shock as rescuers plucked a family from their roof, where they had been huddled for several hours with a three-month-old child. There were car-sized boulders and chunks of buildings on the street.

Tighe and his family trudged through thigh-deep mud to his sister’s nearby house. Just one street away, it was a dramatically different scene. No debris, just puddles.

“Everything was fine,” Tighe said.