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Rescue efforts are ongoing in Santa Barbara County in California, with search teams looking for people who were caught by massive mudslides that swamped houses and trapped cars on Tuesday.

"We think somewhere in the debris field", said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman with Santa Barbara County. Rescue workers were searching on Thursday for more missing people.

Emergency crews climbed and clawed through thick flows of mud and risky debris Wednesday in some of Southern California's most exclusive neighborhoods, as the death toll from the collapse of rain-soaked hillsides rose to 17 people with more than a dozen others missing. The number of missing people has fluctuated since the disaster hit early Tuesday morning and had been as low as 17 on Wednesday.

About 500 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters, and thermal imaging equipment were on the scene.

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through floodwaters January 9 after a mudslide in Montecito, Calif. Weeks after devastating fires tore through Southern California, heavy rains sent mudslides rolling down hillsides in Santa Barbara County, leaving at least 13 people dead and dozens injured.

#CAstorm- Firefighters successfully rescued a 14 yr old girl (right) after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home in Montecito.

Josie Gower held onto a door frame when a devastating river of mud rushed inside her Montecito home.

He said: "We heard a little baby crying and firemen came and we dug down and found a little baby".

Santa Barbara County residents received an emergency alert on their cellphones about mudslides only after the deadly flooding began - because officials were concerned that the warning wouldn't be taken seriously, according to a new report.

More missing: Muniz said it's unclear how many people are missing, but searches are ongoing. Her boyfriend, who was rescued by first responders, was the last person to see her.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown defended the timing of the wireless emergency alert, saying they are supposed "to be used to notify someone of an active incident that is occurring".

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town.

But the human tragedy, which unfolded overnight Tuesday and continued Wednesday, far exceeded the emotional punch of the severe property damage.

Bozanich said many people did not comply with either voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders.

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

With blockages making driving hard, some are hiking or biking to work - including staff at a Montecito retirement home, CNN affiliate KEYT reported.

The torrent arrived suddenly and with a sound some likened to a freight train as water carrying rocks and trees washed away cars and trashed homes.

U.S. Highway 101, a crucial link between Ventura and Santa Barbara, was so overwhelmed by mud and debris that authorities announced it will remain closed until at least Monday. Some mud, and minor damage that pales in comparison to what my neighbors are going thru.

"Roy's life has been in service to his good, loving and ever-forgiving God", said Michael Van Hecke, St. Augustine's headmaster.

A bevy of trucks from Southern California Edison were working at what was once a small, triangular-shaped park across the way from the retirement community.