On our way home from the airport during the summer heat, my husband and I were stopped by an unexpectedly long line of cars at the Hot Springs and Olive Mill intersection. Trucks clogged the roads; noise filled the streets, and rock piles spotted the empty lots. Several homes were still standing with walls gone, mud filling their rooms. Others were, boarded and had orange crosses. We turned right. Some yards off to the left had freshly planted landscapes, but most still had piles of dirt in front. By the time we were heading up San Ysidro, everything looked normal. This story tells our experience returning to Montecito six months post Mudslide. It’s about a crisis still in process.
The mountain sides pre and post mudslide show regrowth has begun.
From Instagram, “First time up the trail…, the landscape is unrecognizable with black burnt trees covering the hillsides. Little flowers are trying their hardest to brighten the sadness …”
At the open house, the desperate realtor asked, “Are people thinking about buying or selling? The Red Zone met the backyard of the home for sale.
“Have you seen those streets at the end of Olive Mill? I drove through it, and it looks like it just happened.”
“I’m sick of the trucks and dust. I stay home in the afternoons.”
Our friends wonder how long the calls for evacuation will last. We’ll bike down a street and see the remains of flowing mud; now empty lots, massive piles of rocks, and dirt.
Close up of debris from the mudslide.
Strolling down our driveway, out for a favorite walk, we got the biggest shock yet. We made our way to the Ennisbrook trail along the San Ysidro Creek. The routine felt familiar until we ventured up the reformed terrain of the creek bed. We witnessed its transformation for the first time since the January 8th mudslide. We recognized the old rock bridge still standing. The creek was wider, the new trail now the width of a tractor. As we stepped little clouds appear at our feet, and coated our sandals with the fine powder dirt. The dust didn’t smell, but it clogged our noses. The trees were all standing; the mud was cleared, some homes were still fine.
Bridge still standing after the debris flow.
After 10 minutes, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar area and disoriented at a cul-de-sac. I felt like I had fallen on hard concrete. Looking up towards East Valley Road, the mud had carried away a whole neighborhood. The neighborhood had been mostly small mansions, with manicured landscapes that accentuated the built-to-look-old homes. But the only landmark was the beekeeper’s green house. Mud filled it to the windows. There were also half-destroyed houses, empty lots, and massive piles of to tell the story. That neighborhood, a part of where I lived, was now gone. Time was frozen.
We knew, better than most, the disaster was coming. On Christmas Day just after the Thomas Fire, our family had hiked past the closed sign at the start of the Romero Canyon trailhead. It was hard to figure out the old route through the still-smoldering remains. We walked around burnt trees, black four-foot logs cut from trees that were still burning from the inside, many trees greens without fire damage. In areas, it looked like a black and white photograph due to white ash on the barren ground. A dead deer, half covered by a landslide, laid across our route.
As the riverbed got steeper, a fellow trespasser was coming down, “I think you can make it. I couldn’t go further because I was alone and my dog was with me.” Not 100% reassured, we took stock of our will to continue and started up the steep hillside towards the fire road. One at a time, we crossed landslides from the fire. The coarse sand slid down the mountain as we hurried to reach the safety of a few trees that held up the hillside.
Evidence of our questionable hike.
Finally, at the fire road, we thought we’d have a safe way down; it would at least be faster than returning down the creek trail. We hiked around boulders on the road with exposed rocks threatening to land on our heads. We felt like running the final mile. At the bottom, still alive, we realized the seriousness of the next winter storm. Two weeks later, the rain came that brought down the hillsides of rock, dead trees, and mud.
There’s a similarity between NYC post 911 and Montecito after the mudslide. In the 1980s, NYC was Gothic City, minus Superman. While living there, I saw pimps beating up their prostitutes while police cruised to the scene at five mph, met my first heroin addict and my first con man, and avoided parks at night. We had paid to watch a live sex act on 42nd Street.
35 years later, NYC post 911, is a gentler, kinder place. Taxis have stopped their incessant honking. Homeless are a rare sight. Strangers are freer with conversation at fast food counters and bars. The parks, filled with workers and tourists, are green, safe, and closed after midnight. There is a relaxed atmosphere. A calmness has come in surviving and rebuilding.
Montecito post mudslide isn’t there yet. The County has cleared most of the main roads, but a few are still closed. Rocks piled as large as houses still exist. Insurance settlements and building permits have not allowed rebuilding many homes. The Hot Springs and Olive Mill intersection just got the clear-things-out signal, and the remaining houses came down in less than a week. We have maybe another five years of rebuilding until the place feels normal.
House before, and after demolition.
There will be future evacuations this winter and the next. People are back behind their hedges, but venture out to be a part of the recovery. I feel anxious to connect. People don’t want to forget. But life has a way of distracting. Our daughter’s wedding is in a month. I’m busy with that until I come across another pile of rocks and remember the loss.