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A rumbling, then a deadly wall of mud

Brie Brazelton was dawdling at the neighborhood store near her home Monday when she heard the noise. It was a rumbling, "kind of like an earthquake," she said later.

She ran up the street toward the house she shared with her fiance's family and several friends, only to realize she had to change direction _ a wall of earth was descending upon it.

"I had to run for my life," she said.

On Tuesday, Brazelton returned, one of the few residents of La Conchita with a strong and specific sense of the devastation wrought by a mudslide that consumed as many as 20 homes here. After days of rain, flooding and mudslides have wreaked havoc in Southern California, washing away cars and houses and people. The region is sodden from record rainfall.

Nowhere is the devastation from that rainfall worse than here in La Conchita, a tiny hamlet 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Five bodies have been found thus far, but officials say it is hard to determine how many more people or bodies they are looking for in a place where the destruction is so complete and the survivors are so scattered. Ten people have been pulled from the rubble alive, but 13, including three children, remain unaccounted for, said Bob Roper, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department.

Roper said Tuesday he remains optimistic that more survivors will be found. Rescue workers were dropping cameras and listening devices into the rubble in hopes of detecting signs of life. Faint sounds were heard Tuesday morning, but the sounds were drowned out by the roar of power tools trying to cut through debris, he said.

"Those faint sounds do keep the adrenaline going in rescue workers," he said. "There is a glimmer of hope on us and the community behind us that we still have a chance at saving somebody. They will continue working around the clock until we concede the rescue efforts will not be of benefit."

Eric Nishimoto, public information officer for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, said: "All the information is coming from someone running from the flow who said "I saw 10 people buried over there,' or neighbors saying, "There's a family of four living there and they're usually home.' Well, we don't know."

But Brazelton, 24, knew who did not make it out of her house that afternoon. There was her fiance's father, Charlie, whose body was the first to be pulled from the rubble Monday night. And her friend Vanessa. And her friend Michelle Wallet, and Wallet's three daughters, Paloma, 2, Raven, 6, and Hannah, 10.

"There's nothing I can (expletive) do," Brazelton said, weeping on the highway next to her ruined community. "They're under all that dirt."

The word mudslide does not seem to fully convey what happened to La Conchita, a community of 300 that hugs U.S. 101 where the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. Instead, from the site of the densely packed mound of dirt in the middle of town and the sharp orange gouge in the green hills above it, it looks as though a slice of mountain simply fell directly on top of it.

Residents here had long been aware of the potential for mudslides; a decade ago, a similar slide engulfed nine homes and depressed property values for several years.

By Monday, two weeks of torrential rain had left coast highlands heavy and fragile.

Still, few could imagine what lay ahead for La Conchita. The last mudslide "just creeped down" the hill, said George Smith, whose girlfriend lives in the village. "People came down and watched," he recalled, and no one was injured.

Monday's mudslide, though, "was like a dump truck," he said. It roared into town at a ferocious speed, an avalanche of dirt, rocks, and brush pushing forward everything in its path. Officials said the 30-foot-tall mound of dirt, barely the height of the two-story houses next door, concealed the wreckage of as many as four houses jumbled on top of one another.

Skies were sunny when the bluff gave way without warning. Rain returned overnight, but Tuesday morning the search went on under a sunny blue sky, the kind of day that draws people to the area's beaches. No new storms were in sight through the weekend.

Despite the clearing skies in California, authorities warned more flooding was possible throughout the region as runoff spilled into creeks.

A firefighter who was among the first crews on the scene at La Conchita on Monday described a chaotic mess as workers labored to extract a badly injured woman from the rubble. With gas leaking from a ruptured line, they could not use power tools for fear of sparking a fire and instead dug her out by hand. It took three hours, he said.

Conrad Quintana, a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, acknowledged it probably will take a week or two before they sift through all the debris.

"We're still in rescue mode," he said. "We got a lot of residents out here waiting on loved ones."

A few residents and friends of the missing were being allowed to help in the recovery efforts. Among them was Jimmie Wallet, husband of the missing Michelle and father of the three missing girls from Brazelton's house.

"He was at the gas station buying popsicles for his kids. He saw it come down and ran up the street as fast as he could. He couldn't get there fast enough," said Larry Gallardo, a friend of Wallet's. During the early hours of the search, Gallardo said, "they heard heartbeats, which gave them hope."

Brazelton wandered away from the site clutching a carved wooden spoon of hers that she found when rescue workers escorted her to what remained of her town.

"I'm finding the most random stuff," she said in tears. "Why did this make it and the Wallets didn't?"

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Mudslide season

A mudslide in La Conchita, Calif., on Monday killed five people, injured 14 and left 13 people missing. Weather conditions in the Pacific Ocean and more rainfall than usual in Sourhern California have made mudslides possible. Mudslides are common in almost every state and cause up to $2-billion in damage and 25 to 50 deaths annually in the United States. They occur naturally but can also be caused by land mismanagement and development.

Low pressure system in upper atmosphere

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Stream of moist air

Rainfall

Two inches of rain in a 24 hour period weighs about 10 pounds in a square foot of soil.

Mudslides

Contain more water than landslides. Can move up to 22 mph.

Road

Roads cutting into a hillside interupt the downhill flow of rainwater through the soil.

Soil

Vegetation and root systems provide resistance to soil sliding down a hillside. Wildfires, development, excessive snowfall and rainfall can all weaken soil's resistance to gravity.

Slip plane or weathered rock

Where soil meets bedrock. Watersaturated soil can lubricate this layer, causing soil to slide off.

Bedrock

Porous bedrock, like limestone, drains water faster. Impermeable bedrock, like granite, keeps water in the soil.

Warnings: Residents of areas prone to mudslides should be especially aware during intense storms. Some of the warning signs:

+ Decks, patios, telephone poles, fences or trees shifting.

+ Unusual sounds, like trees cracking or boulders knocking together.

+ A sudden increase or decrease in water flow in nearby streams or channels, or if water changes quickly from clear to muddy.

+ Drivers should look out for collapsed pavement, mud or fallen rocks.

Southern California's wettest rainfall seasons

Yearly totals in inches, recorded in downtown Los Angeles

1883-84 38.18

1889-90 34.84

1977-78 33.44

1940-41 32.76

1982-83 31.28

1997-98 31.01

1968-69 27.47

1992-93 27.36

1979-80 26.98

1892-93 26.28

1951-52 26.21

1994-95 24.35

1913-14 23.65

1937-38 23.43

1936-37 22.41

(As of Jan. 10)

2004-05 22.35

Sources: ESRI, GDT, Associated Press, wildfirenews. com, the American Red Cross, University of California at Santa Barbara, weatherunderground.com

Rescue workers in yellow and orange suits drop cameras and listening devices into the rubble as they search for survivors Tuesday amid the wreckage of homes in La Conchita, Calif. Ten people have been rescued but 13, including three children, are unaccounted for.

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