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Why California's mudslides are so devastating

Southern Californians just can't get a break from nature. First, wildfires scorched a massive area northwest of Los A...

Posted: Jan 10, 2018 1:33 PM
Updated: Jan 10, 2018 1:33 PM

Southern Californians just can't get a break from nature. First, wildfires scorched a massive area northwest of Los Angeles. Now catastrophic mudslides have swallowed homes and killed at least 15 people.

But a variety of unique factors have made this latest destruction especially calamitous.

Wildfires just torched the area

Last month the sprawling Thomas Fire destroyed more than 282,000 acres -- the equivalent of more than Dallas and Miami combined.

That means vegetation that would normally be able to soak up floodwater no longer exists.

"All these hills normally have a protective cover of chaparral," said Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara's deputy director of public works. "That's all gone. Almost 100% gone."

Given the circumstances, it takes hardly any rain to produce a mudslide.

"About a half an inch per hour can start to produce issues, mudslides," Robbie Monroe of the National Weather Service's Oxnard office told CNN.

Its geology means rockslides, too

In the foothills of Montecito, east of Santa Barbara, the soil just sits on rock -- "all rock," resident Dave Peterson said.

"When that soil gets wet, it just slides off the rock," Peterson said. "It's a treacherous situation."

Images of boulders crashing downhill proved Peterson's point.

The elevation drops off sharply

"In these mountains, we go from 3,000 feet to sea level in sometimes just four or five miles," Fayram said.

That means mudslides and rockslides happen quickly -- and with great intensity.

Ben Hyatt of Montecito said his house was engulfed in a flash.

"Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking," he said. "(It) surrounded the house, 2 to 3 feet."

Drought has exacerbated the problem

California has suffered from years of drought. Ironically, the rain currently deluging the area is actually needed to grow the vegetation that helps prevent mudslides.

"We're kind of damned if we do and if we don't get rain," Fayram said. "We need the rain, but we don't need a serious debris-flow problem, either."

Pamela Ueckert of Ventura said the disasters tormenting Southern California have been unbearable.

"It's just too much to handle after everything that's happened," she said. "I just feel bad for people who lost their homes ... They shouldn't have to handle any more."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

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Reported Deaths: 5243
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Washington42359405
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Jackson25105363
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Umatilla15144184
Linn14859183
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Morrow197825
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Grant109116
Lake105617
Wallowa76313
Sherman1933
Gilliam1854
Wheeler1141
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California Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 5107717

Reported Deaths: 74800
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles153472027244
San Diego4091824350
Riverside3892365381
San Bernardino3762805983
Orange3352965756
Sacramento1690952452
Kern1582701828
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San Joaquin1080791835
Ventura1043091192
Contra Costa1042181056
Stanislaus919641429
Tulare867391100
San Francisco57141674
San Mateo56585631
Monterey52842626
Solano47828360
Santa Barbara47523555
Merced45309671
Sonoma43349414
Placer42458473
Imperial38932776
Kings35370367
San Luis Obispo31667360
Madera26388311
Shasta26221461
Butte25608318
Santa Cruz22402224
Yolo21722261
Marin18587249
El Dorado18448168
Sutter14646186
Napa13446106
Yuba1079891
Tehama10316131
Humboldt10294119
Nevada10112105
Mendocino864999
Lassen797656
San Benito787979
Tuolumne778491
Lake7057113
Amador580067
Siskiyou479657
Glenn458536
Calaveras445788
Del Norte377942
Colusa328321
Inyo257346
Plumas19577
Mono19034
Mariposa162218
Trinity100717
Modoc7936
Sierra2190
Unassigned1560
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