A COUPLE who rode a wave of muddy water down a twisting street in his Prius during a Southern California flood are lucky to be alive.

"I just got pushed down the side of a hill by a wall of water and mud," Desionne Franklin said in an Instagram video after enduring the terrifying ride.

"Rocks flowing, mud flowing everywhere. Barely made it out."

Franklin, 44, and his girlfriend evacuated a friend's home where they were staying as waves of storm run-off began pouring down Burbank's Country Club Drive, a steep foothill street near hiking trails and a golf course.

In the mountains above, water, rocks and mud cascaded down from an area stripped bare of soil-stabilising brush by recent wildfires.

Mr Franklin, who is from Dallas, was told the neighbourhood was being evacuated. He and his girlfriend hurriedly left in their grey Prius.

He drove down the steep, curving road through waves of muddy water. The wheels skidded on rocks and rubble and the surging current pushed at the car. A wave of water crashed into the back of the car.

Desionne Franklin rode his Prius down a wave of mud and survived. 17 are dead in the Southern California mudslides. Picture: Facebook
Desionne Franklin rode his Prius down a wave of mud and survived. 17 are dead in the Southern California mudslides. Picture: Facebook

"My girlfriend was screaming: 'Go, go, go! We've got to get out of here!"' Mr Franklin said.

"There was barely any traction," he said. "Then the hydroplaning started. I was completely at the mercy of the flow of the water."

Video supplied by Burbank Firefighters Local 778 showed the car sweeping down and around a curve in the street on a cascading tide of muddy water.

For 30 seconds, Mr Franklin lost control of the car before regaining a little traction.

"Oh, this might be how it ends," he thought.

On the way, he saw mangled cars that had been swept away.

"They looked like wadded-up pieces of paper," he said. "It was terrible."

At last, the Prius made it to the bottom of the hill. Mr Franklin said he and his girlfriend looked at each other and "just sat there, speechless."

Remarkably, they were not hurt and their car maintained only scratches.

However, others have not been so lucky. 17 people have died in the Southern California mudslides in January.

The oldest victim was Jim Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before. He died with his wife of more than 50 years, Alice, as they were swept away.

According to their daughter, the Mitchells loved their home in the seaside enclave of Montecito where they moved in 1995. They also loved their dog, Gigi, who is missing.

The youngest victim was three-year-old Kailly Benitez, one of four children killed.

The other children killed were six-year-old Peerawat Sutthithepn, 10-year-old Jonathan Benitez and 12-year-old Sawyer Corey.

As their names and those of 14 other victims were released Thursday, crews kept digging through the muck and rubble looking for more people.

"At this moment, we are still looking for live victims," Santa Barbara fire Capt. Gary Pitney said. "The likelihood is increasing that we'll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that."

All of the dead were killed by "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides," authorities said.

Five people were missing as of early Friday, down from as many as 43 a day earlier, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County.

"We were able to find people," Ms Anderson said, but added that the number could continue to fluctuate greatly. She said some missing-person reports are quickly cleared but others take time to resolve.