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Rescuers Search for Survivors in California Mud Slide as Storms Subside

At least four people are dead and 14 injured following a mudslide in the tiny town of La Conchita, California, where rescue workers are searching the rubble of homes buried by a collapsing hillside. It was the most serious incident in four days of record rains that claimed at least 12 lives.

Authorities were evacuating a four-block section of the coastal community 100 kilometers northwest of Los Angeles, as a wall of mud came cascading through the valley Monday afternoon. It buried at least 15 houses. Residents of the hamlet held pets, luggage and clothing as they fled.

Ventura County fire chief Bob Roper says survivors were found in parts of homes that remained intact after a river of mud crushed the structures.

"The people were in voids, like corners of the home, under a doorway, under some furniture, and so the mud and the debris that collapsed the house, and they had just a little cubicle that they were in," he said. "And so the crews were able to go in there and get that off of them, and they had to go in with chain saws and cut the walls away from the victims to finally get them pulled out of the rubble."

Rescuers used microphones, infrared sensors and search dogs to look through crevices in the rubble for survivors. This rescue worker said the job is difficult.

"You kind of feel helpless, even with all our equipment and our desire to try to rescue people," he said.

One frantic man was digging through the rubble of his home for signs that his wife and three children had survived. Emergency workers say up to 27 people are unaccounted for, but add that some may have been away from home when the disaster struck.

Authorities say adjacent homes face structural damage from the shifting ground. A mandatory evacuation order remains in effect for all residents.

The record rainfall around California and heavy snow in the mountains have created hazardous conditions, and authorities have conducted several dramatic rescues. One man was swept three kilometers downstream in a rain-swollen flood channel, riding atop his car, before he was rescued.

The first attempt was unsuccessful. The man dropped back into the channel, but was pulled to safety minutes later.

North of Los Angeles, the Santa Clara River swelled its banks and swept away the mobile home of a man who lost his previous home to a 1994 earthquake in nearby Northridge. A family evacuated a neighboring trailer as the river rose.

"We just feel it's getting a little close, and we don't want to have to rush," one woman said.

Sunday, a stranded woman being retrieved from a flooded street in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, lost her grip on her two-year-old daughter, who drowned in the speeding waters. In a later rescue attempt near San Dimas, California, another mother and infant were saved.

Two thousand people have been evacuated from the town of Piru, north of Los Angeles, after a reservoir overflowed Monday. Tuesday, 4,000 were forced from their homes by a flooding creek in San Juan Capistrano to the south.

In the latest of several storms, Los Angeles received 16 centimeters of rain, and for many residents, it was simply an inconvenience. People coped with downed power lines and flooded streets, keeping Los Angeles city worker Bruce Francis busy.

"I'm in [the] transportation [department], so we've just been getting mudslide calls and all kinds of things," he said. "And we're just trying to do the best we can with the resources we have."

Heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains created problems for residents of resort communities. Mountain residents near Lake Tahoe coped with nearly two meters of snow. Utility workers made repairs after hiking in on snow shoes.

Henry Garcia works for the local electrical company, and he spoke with NBC television.

"The heavy snow comes down and it loads the trees up, and the trees lean over and take the line out," he said. "That's basically what always happens up here."

The storm extended through much of the West. Avalanches killed two men in the mountain state of Utah and closed highways in neighboring Colorado.

By Tuesday, skies in Los Angeles were clear and the rain was tapering off in central California. But authorities warned that water-soaked hillsides, swollen rivers and reservoirs and snow-blanketed mountains may continue to cause problems in coming days.