One Year After Deadly Mudslides, Montecito Marches Forward from Disaster

Nearly one thousand people gathered for a memorial and candlelight march through Montecito Wednesday night in remembrance of the horrific storm flow disaster that claimed 23 lives exactly one year ago.

Among the attendees were many grateful to have escaped with their own lives after torrrents of floodwater and mountains of mud and debris slammed into homes in the early morning darkness of Jan. 9, 2018.

Marching at night was symbolic of the community's emergence from that darkness -- prolonged by loss of electricity service -- back into the light, said Layla Farinpour, LMFT, a therapist at Cottage Hospital and a member of the 1-9 Planning Committee.

The year ago flooding and flows that overwhelmed ordinarily dry creeks were unleashed by a cell of intense rain onto the Santa Ynez mountains, left vulnerable by the Thomas wildfire that had scorched slopes and consumed vegetation only weeks before. Some of the boulders were the size of bungalows, and far more massive.

Hundreds of homes sustained serious damage, scores beyond repair and since leveled. Dozens of the cleared sites stand empty. 

Many evacuees remain in temporary housing outside Montecito. Amye Leong and her husband Bob Price observed the anniversary in the rental house they found in adjacent Santa Barbara. 

"There's still a lot of unsettledness, a lot of pain," Leong said.


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Leong was downstairs in their house on Hot Springs Road when a wall of mud and boulders roared down Montecito Creek, topping its banks, and flooding through the ground floor. She barely made it upstairs to safety.

"It's not so much the fear of it," Leong recalled. "I actually lived through that. How do you deal with that when others didnt't?"

Leong has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the ongoing stress worsened her rheumatoid arthritis, she said.

"The effects of all of this are not necessarily visible," she said. "And that's what I'm having to deal with."

She and her huband find joy in the recovery of precious heirlooms wrenched from their house during the flow, and found weeks later buried in mud as much as a quarter mile away. Part of their hand-painted armoire turned up, as did place settings, silver serving ware, and two delicate porcelain vases -- filled with mud, but otherwise unharmed.

"Go figure," Leong said, shaking her head.

"We've got to stay optimistic," Price said.

Rain returned to Montecito on the anniversary day, but fortunately it was light -- enough to encourage regrowth, but not enough to cause further erosion.

During the day, earthmovers worked to clear the Cold Springs Debris Basin, which had accumulated some debris from runoff earlier this season.

In hope of increasing protection, Santa Barbara County wants to create an additional debris basin for the San Ysidro Creek, said Supervisor Das Williams, whose first district included Montecito. The county is seeking grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Meantime, a private, non-profit group is pursuing a plan to locate giant steel nets strategically on private property to stop any boulders that might come loose during future storms.

A year ago, evacuation warnings had been issued for much of Montecito in the hours before the storm hit, but were not received by many residents, and not heeded by others who did not see urgency. In the past year, state legislation has been enacted with the intent of increasing the reach of emergency notification systems.

After the disaster, subsequent forecasts of rain last winter led to renewed evacuations, though there were no further significant flow events.  Since then, with a calculated effort to minimize avoidable inconvenience and the boy who cried wolf syndrome, the county has adjusted the evacuation order threshhold to a higher level of forecast rain intensity.

Insurance coverage was another issue to be tackled after the disaster.  External flood and debris damage ordinarily is excluded from a standard homeowner's policy, and usually requires separate flood insurance. But California's Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones issued an opinion that exclusion should not apply in Montecito, finding that the damage was directly linked to wildfire destruction, which is covered by homeowner policies.

Supervisor Williams expects the pace of home rebuilding will pick up in year two, and does see healing, but said it is a "process" as yet far from finished.

"We as a community are still rebuilding."

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