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Inside the Montecito Mudlsides

Inside the Montecito Mudslides

Dale Zurawski | Published in the Montecito Journal March 1st-8th, 2018

The night before the mudslide, the Sheriff warned of a disaster heading towards Montecito. Rain, wind, flooding were certain; they just didn’t know how bad or where. As I walked down the driveway the next morning, the air was chilly and fresh.  Instead of the morning paper, I saw a pickup truck drive by. The kids sitting up in the bed asked if I needed rescuing. It seemed like a strange question. I slipped on my hiking boots and headed out for a look at the creek. I was thrilled to go exploring. I didn’t know then about the the missing and the dead.

Being in a voluntary evacuation zone, we didn't leave the night before the storm. Like most of Montecito, we were up repeatedly with sounds of wind, rain, and the force of the flood. There was a loud bang that woke us. When we looked out our bedroom window, Montecito was lit up like there was another fire. A 21" gas line had exploded and sent a torch 10' into the sky. In the morning, the sun rose to meet a clear sky.

For the next three days, we were on an island with debris and mayhem all around us. The houses along San Ysidro were mostly undamaged but bordered on both sides by mud choked creeks. Rain, unimpeded by vegetation, stripped the soil from the fire exposed hills above Montecito, and tumbled down Olive Mill Road. The muddy stream took out everything in it’s path. At the intersection with the 101 freeway, the land levels out before it comes to the ocean and the remains from the flood settled. The debris brought down by the force of the muddy water included tires, balls, wood, tree branches, and rocks as large as the room of a house. The destruction was unbelievable. 

It was impossible to get out of our neighborhood unless you walked and then you couldn’t get back in. Normally we lived behind hedges, walls, and security systems. Now we were too bored without cable TV or internet to stay at home. We were out and about to look at the damage. We were mingling with neighbors we rarely encountered on the streets. People were anxious to talk and swap stories about what they had seen; what they had heard. The death and loss had not yet penetrated our psyche. 

Eventually the Army Core of Engineers took over and wanted everyone out of Montecito. The Sheriff escorted us through the mud as we drove to Santa Barbara. Once at my mother-in-law's house, it was like seeing a satellite view of a hurricane. TV news and newspapers blasted us with images we hadn’t imaged. Uber drivers, store owners, the lady at the coffee shop talked about their connection with the catastrophe. One man at the bar stool next to us, owned a now-vacant restaurant and was holed up in SB. He had to be rescued from his second story apartment after he had helped a person off an out cropping on the beach. He told also of the naked body they had seen lying on the beach.

In Santa Barbara we were able to grasp the impacts to the local businesses as well as the personal trauma. The fire in December followed by the mudslide had closed restaurants and the 101. Seventy percent of the workforce weren’t getting paid since they couldn’t get to work. Trucks couldn’t deliver inventory to builders or stores. The stories came out of everyone you met, each one seemingly more upsetting than the last. When I read the newspaper I cried for the first time. Something about touching the paper finally made me feel the impact of the fire on my neighbors in Santa Barbara and in Montecito. 

In the aftermath, I follow the news and hope for the best. I had spent three days isolated by the mud-filled creeks. Being outside, talking with neighbors was reminiscent of a time before computers and cell phones dominated our lives. Now I mourn the lives lost and worry about the rebuilding. But mostly, I long for the sense of community I had found when I was out from behind my hedge.

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