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Montecito Mudslide

The railing along Olive Mill Road was gone. When we biked through the mud to get there, I asked Geoff where we were; I saw a river that looked like the Mississippi to me. He said that is the 101 freeway.

This is my story of the Montecito mudslide. Although I experienced nothing as terrifying as a rescue or as tragic as the death of a family member, as an evacuee, I have my story. The trauma of being involved in a natural disaster has taken a toll on the whole community of SB. The healing happens in the story telling.

Search and rescue workers in the Casa Dorinda open space.

We came to San Fransisco eleven days after the mudslide, earlier than we had planned, for our daughter’s engagement party. We heard the 101 freeway is opening this morning in SB but there is still no word on when the evacuees can return. Currently, there is no gas or clean water in Montecito. Our immediate plans are to stay here until we leave for Iceland Jan 31. While we are gone our neighbors, Medeighnia, Peter, and their 2 sons, will be housesitting for us. This is their house destroyed by the mud. They had to be rescued from the second floor and are lucky to be alive.

Military transport vehicles moved survivors to temporary housing.

For Geoff and I, it was like we were in the eye of the hurricane for the three days immediately following the mudslide. We heard the dire warning by the Sheriff on Monday night but were in a voluntary evacuation zone and did not leave. That night, like most of Montecito, we were up repeatedly with sounds of wind, rain, and the force of the flood. At 2 am Geoff looked out our bedroom window. Montecito was lit up like there was another fire. When I saw it, I was confused, how could there be another fire with so much rain? Later we found out it was a 21” gas line that had exploded and sent a torch 10’ into the sky. At 4 am Sharon, who was staying with us, heard an explosion, jumped up from her bed in the guest house, and put on her boots ready to run. I woke at 6:30 and went out to get the morning paper. There was no paper, but I saw Medeighnia’s boys in the back of a truck. The older boy Dane called out, “do you need any help?” Later we saw and talk to Mike from the other end the street. Pete, out of town that night, had called Mike to go rescue Medeighnia and the boys after 911 said they were too busy to come immediately.

The search for Vvctims near the Olive Mill and Hot Springs intersection.

I threw on my boots, took a quick walk around Casa Dorinda, and saw the mud. Then I went home to get Geoff. By the time I could convince him to come look, it was 8. We met Medeighnia walking back from a look at her house in the daylight. The mud moved her son’s white car from the front of the house, and her car was completely gone.

Mudslide debris after the mud receded.

Trapped by mudslides in both Montecito Creek and San Ysidro Creek, we walked the neighborhood for the next three days. We were on an island with debris all around us. The mudslide had spared the houses all along San Ysidro. We were fortunate to be in a small sub-watershed that had not burned. The creek at Bonnie Lane and Wyant was running clear. It was impossible to get out unless you walked or took your bike through the mud. If you left they would not let you come back. It was an exciting time; the death and loss had not yet penetrated our psyche. Instead, we were visiting with longtime friends and neighbors in the same situation. We were talking to people we seldom see. Each person had their story and the stories of others less fortunate than we had been.

Sample of the debris after the mudslide claimed someone's home.

We had three days of no Cox cable, no internet, no Google on our phones and limited reception. We still had electricity, water, gas plus time to go out and explore. The only news we had came from a transistor radio and the police at each intersection telling us we could not leave.

News of the mudslide was extensive and non stop once we were out of the evacuation zone.

The destruction from the mud was just unbelievable. Mud, debris, root balls from the oaks, and rocks as large as the room of a house had tumbled down Olive Mill and had taken out everything in their path. The intersection of Olive Mill, Hot Springs, and the 101 exit ramp got hit the worst. Cars still emerged were stuck in the mud. Semi trucks were stuck all along the side of the road. At the 101 freeway, the land levels out just before it comes to the ocean and all the debris settled there. This area was left with the mud, cars, and bodies. Catty-corner to the Montecito Inn, our sailing friend Caroline has a yard and garage filled with mud. They found five bodies in her neighborhood.

View of the Montecito Inn parking garage the day after the mudslide.

The three days inside the disaster zone, we spent most of our time writing and receiving text messages. I visited our elderly neighbors and gave them the news. Thursday night we had planned a 5 o’clock potluck to share food, wine, and stories. When Erik, Kris, and their two kids showed up, they asked if we were packed. We said no, we hadn’t heard we had to leave. They had direct TV and said the Sheriff had announced at the 4 o'clock news conference that everyone was to leave by 6 pm that night. A small group of neighbors came to the potluck and by 7:30 most had left and but said they weren’t leaving that night. We started packing and I got in touch with 211 to give them the names and numbers of our elderly neighbors who could not get out of their homes unassisted. Helicopters had been circling our house for three days looking for survivors, but that night they had spotlights on, and it sounded like they were landing on top of our house.

At 8 am on Friday, we got a Sheriff’s escort out of the mud on North Jameson and went to Gene’s, Geoff’s mother’s house. Once we were in SB, it was like we were able to see the satellite view of the hurricane. We saw news photos, read newspapers, and the felt the impact to SB outside of Montecito. When I read the newspaper I cried for the first time. Something about touching the newspaper made me feel the impact.

Television coverage of the mudslide were inaccessible to us for three days immediately after the disaster.

In Santa Barbara also were the impacts to the businesses. The fire in December followed by the mudslide closed restaurants. The closed 101 freeway didn’t allow 70% of the the construction workforce to get to work. Most workers were not being paid since they could not get to work. With the 101 closed the trucks couldn’t deliver inventory to builders or stock store shelves. The Thomas Fire in Ventura had chased some people we met from their homes in Ventura. Ventura had lost 500 homes, and 1000 people had been displaced. Many were now trapped in Santa Barbara. The stories came out of everyone you met, each one seemingly more upsetting than the last.

We have been in SF now for a couple of nights, and my mind has settled enough to finally write about what happened. We are in the peculiar situation of being able to go anywhere but home. We didn't plan this evacuation time, we follow the news coming out of Sb and hope for the best.

The end.

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