“I heard rumbling and ran for my life.”

A massive winter storm drenched parts of Southern California this week, leading to deadly mudslides.

The city of Montecito, close to Santa Barbara, was hardest hit.

Cal Fire puts the affected area at 30 square miles. Seventeen people dead, 28 injured, eight missing. Sixty-five homes confirmed destroyed and more than 400 damaged. Fourteen helicopters and four water rescue teams were aiding the effort.

And rescue teams were still slogging through the mud, hunting for the missing and assessing the damage.

…Marco Farrell, 45, said he was two blocks away when he saw the slide descending on Olive Mill Road.

“I heard rumbling and ran for my life,” he said. “Literally. Ran for my life.”

A wall of water carrying uprooted trees and boulders flowed like a river through the residential street. About a block up from Farrell’s home, firefighters were helping Devon Crail and his wife, Tiare, retrieve items from his parents’ house.

This BBC video depicts a mudflow that transports a car through the city:

Perhaps one of the most chilling accounts of the disaster comes from Berkeley Johnson and his wife Karen, who escaped onto the roof of their home in Montecito as mud slammed into the building.

But after the flooding had subsided, they heard a baby crying and climbed down from the roof to begin searching.

Mr Johnson told the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper that the pair joined a fireman to dig the toddler out, before scooping mud out of her mouth.


“We got it out, got the mud out of its mouth. I’m hoping it’s okay. They took it right to the hospital.”

“Had we not gone over there, I don’t think that kid would have [survived],” he added.

A factor contributing to the disaster was the suite of wildfires that hit the region, rendering the soil unable to absorb the deluge that hit the region during the most recent winter storm.

[I]ntense wildfires transform rich soil into a dense, water-repellent surface. To make matters worse, biologists have found that when rain hits the charred landscape, it can become even more dense and more water repellent.

It’s a long-term effect, too, which means Santa Barbara County will be prone to flooding and mudslides for years to come, potentially.

Another contributing factor is that alerts about potential mudslides did not go out until the flows began.

Santa Barbara County officials chose not to send an emergency alert to cellphones warning of mudslides until destructive flooding had already begun in Montecito, officials said Wednesday.

The message, similar to an Amber Alert for abducted children, was sent about 3:50 a.m. Tuesday to all registered cellphones in areas that were under voluntary and mandatory evacuations because of heavy rains that threatened mudflows in the wake of the Thomas fire, officials said.

It’s unclear how many people actually got the alert. But by then, tons of mud, trees, rocks and other debris were rolling down hills that had been burned in the largest fire on record in California.

Finally, many Montecito residents ignored the initial warnings.

For days, officials advised residents in areas burned by the Thomas fire that a coming storm could bring major mudflows. The McManigals’ neighborhood was under a voluntary evacuation order.

Many residents decided to stay. Some assumed the threat was overblown just weeks after the fire triggered similar calls to evacuate.

But when the earth began to move, it was too late. The power of the debris flow destroyed everything in its path and there was no time to flee.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, and I sure hope that officials in these disaster zones do more that politically posture about global warming instead of trying to develop infrastructure and response plans that will prevent another 17 deaths next fire season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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