Ventura County is located on the Southern California coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The mountains in the central and northern part of the county channel rain water into two rivers that in turn drain into the Pacific Ocean. During normal rainfall events, this ancient natural...
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Ventura County is located on the Southern California coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The mountains in the central and northern part of the county channel rain water into two rivers that in turn drain into the Pacific Ocean. During normal rainfall events, this ancient natural drainage system is sufficient to allow the water to flow into the sea in a benign manner.
Beginning in late December 2004 and into January 2005, drought-ridden Southern California was pummeled by a series of storms; the brunt of which was taken by the Ventura County mountains. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 5, areas of Ventura County received over 24 inches of rain. By the time the three back-to-back storms arrived on Sunday, Jan. 9, the saturated ground was unable to absorb any additional water, the natural drainage was overwhelmed and the inevitable flooding began throughout the county.
Sunday evening, the Ventura County Fire Department began to receive an onslaught of rain-related calls for service throughout the county that was the precursor of what was yet to come. Fire department rescue resources were augmented with additional dispatchers to deal with the increase in call volume. Public service responses for assistance with minor flooding began to back up at the fire communications center. Three swift water rescue teams were among those deployed. These teams ended up performing 23 rescues and two recoveries over five days, including some worthy of meritorious awards.
The Saturation Point
On Monday morning in the northern portion of the county near the seaside community of La Conchita, fire department resources were busy trying to evacuate 200 people who were stranded in their cars between two mudslides on Highway 101, the major north-south corridor running through the county. Provisions were being made to transport the people to the local fire station where they could stay out of the rain until the highway was cleared by heavy equipment.
It was just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon when emergency responders witnessed the sudden and unexpected disaster that was taking place in the community just south of their location. La Conchita is an enclave known for its proximity to the beach, affordable housing and bohemian atmosphere where people come to enjoy life away from the crowded nearby cities. Because of the storm-related problems, children stayed home from school and many others were home who normally would be away during the day. Witnesses described hearing a horrific sound that came with no warning, similar to a jet engine, created by the mudslide moving down into the community of La Conchita, along with the sound of homes being crushed in the path of the 30- foot wall of mud and debris.
The Ventura County Fire Department personnel who arrived on-scene within minutes described an incredibly chaotic sight, rarely witnessed by many veteran firefighters. Victims were being pulled from the rubble by civilians, panicked people were running from the scene limping and bleeding, others were digging aimlessly where their houses stood just moments before. Crushed homes had been torn from their foundations and were spread amid the ruins; other structures were demolished and buried under 25 to 30 feet of mud.
Mutilated cars and trucks were leaking gasoline and were strewn over a large area, downed power lines were entangled in the rubble and the smell of natural gas permeated the air. Law enforcement officers were trying to evacuate citizens to safe areas and were met with resistance. In addition, above the scene, more mud was poised to slide into the area where rescuers were focused on retrieving victims who were still alive in the rubble. And so began the rescue operation that lasted four days and eventually involved over 800 incident personnel.