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Archive for Sunday, December 26, 2004

A year later, mudslides survivor remembers harrowing California Christmas

Kansan among 16 killed during 2003 disaster

December 26, 2004

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— Steve Phillips had expected mild Southern California winter weather as his family camped in the mountains near San Bernadino while visiting his grandmother last year over the holidays.

But Christmas 2003 turned into a nightmare as steady rain led to flash floods and mudslides in mountains scarred by devastating wildfires. The torrents of water sent trees, boulders and other debris rocketing down hillsides, killing 16 people, including one from Kansas, at two campgrounds.

Carol E. Nuss, 57, a claims adjuster from Wellington, was staying there while working to settle claims from the deadly October 2003 wildfires that destroyed vegetation in the region -- leaving it vulnerable to mudslides.

A year later, Phillips, 44, recalled the "wall of water" that swept him from the campground.

"I was flying across the desert with the silhouettes of cactuses and bushes flying past," he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in Saturday's edition.

He was relieved to learn later that his wife, their three young children and a 16-year-old niece were fine back at the camp.

But others weren't so fortunate. The mudslides killed five adults and nine children a few miles away at St. Sophia Camp north of San Bernardino. The body of one child, who was found four months after the storm, had been carried 15 miles by the flood.

At the KOA Kampground in Devore, where Phillips was staying, two people were killed, including the campground manager and Nuss.

The Phillips family and the relatives of those killed in the mudslides are among dozens of people suing San Bernardino County, claiming authorities didn't do enough to warn people of the potential danger. Local officials have said the floods were unforeseeable natural disasters.

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