Wednesday, January 17 , 2018, 11:59 pm | Fair 52º

 
 
 
 

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Despite Repeated Warnings, Many Montecito Residents Didn’t Heed Evacuation Orders

'Evacuation fatigue' and misplaced optimism likely led people to stay put during fierce storm, officials say

Search and rescue teams have been evacuating residents from the Montecito area since early Tuesday. Santa Barbara County issued evacuation orders for areas north of State Route 192 ahead of the floods, but many residents chose to stay put. Click to view larger
Search and rescue teams have been evacuating residents from the Montecito area since early Tuesday. Santa Barbara County issued evacuation orders for areas north of State Route 192 ahead of the floods, but many residents chose to stay put. (Diego Topete / Noozhawk photo)

Many people who were given mandatory evacuation orders in Montecito before Tuesday’s deadly storm didn’t leave their homes, and as of Thursday there were still reports of those who chose to stay in their residences – without utilities or road access – when approached by rescue crews.

In Romero Canyon, 300 people were trapped by debris, and helicopters conducted a hoist rescue for some of the residents on Wednesday night, Montecito Fire Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said.

Others decided to stay put, he said.

Requests for evacuation assistance are still coming in, from people who have been sheltering in place since Tuesday, or who have been voluntarily holding out in their homes.

Sheriff Bill Brown has said the majority of people in the mandatory evacuation zone did not cooperate and leave before the floods

“I think there was an element of evacuation fatigue that had hit a lot of people,” Brown told Noozhawk.

“A lot of these people already had been evacuated because of the (Thomas) fire itself, and out of their homes. Here we are three weeks later and, boom, here it’s coming again.”

Most, if not all, of the mandatory orders in Montecito were for the same areas evacuated for more than a week during the Thomas Fire, and let back into their homes by Dec. 21. 

People were vocally frustrated with the extent and length of the fire evacuations, which reached from the Ventura County line to Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara.

In the case of the storm evacuation orders, the county announced the orders on Sunday night, making them effective at noon the next day.

"Certainly there was an intent to get that message out, and I think that message did go out in terms of the gravity of the situation," Brown said.  

“But I think they were just hoping for the best, and unfortunately, it just didn’t happen.”

Bob Glazier, who lives on Parra Grande Lane, told Noozhawk he and his daughters evacuated for the Thomas Fire and the home was undamaged.

“And then, honestly, it seemed like the second evacuation, both of which were mandatory, at the time it seemed a little overcautious I guess is the right word. So we decided to stay.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department task force members help search a home in Montecito Thursday. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County Fire Department task force members help search a home in Montecito Thursday.  (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

“When I heard the heavy rain and the noise of the flash flood, I wasn’t so sure we had made the right decision,” Glazier said.

Speaking by cell phone Thursday afternoon, he was still at the home with his daughters, ages 13 and 15, and they planned to leave later that day, after booking a week at Belmond El Encanto hotel.

He described staying up throughout the night, shoveling mud and hosting some neighbors who lived closer to the creek.

Like many others, Glazier assumed he’d be able to drive out of the area at some point.

“They said if I leave, I can’t come back, so I have been staying because I felt for sure everything would come back on,” he said.

Water service, power, gas, internet and other utilizes had widespread outages in the area, and water in particular is what forced him out.

“I feel kind of like I’m giving up or not toughing it out, but I think three or four days without water is my limit,” he said.

Planning for the Storm

The National Weather Service predicted heavy rains and thunderstorms for the storm that was going to hit late Monday and Tuesday, which can mean a lot of rainfall in a short period of time.

That’s especially risky in recent burn areas because of the 10-times increased risk of flash floods and debris flows with heavy rainfall.

Santa Barbara County warned people about that potential, and issued mandatory evacuation orders and evacuation warnings to areas below recent burn areas including the Thomas Fire, which burned above Montecito, Summerland and the Carpinteria Valley after it surged west from its start in Santa Paula.

Crews clean up flooding debris from Olive Mill Road in Montecito Thursday. Click to view larger
Crews clean up flooding debris from Olive Mill Road in Montecito Thursday.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

“This strong storm is expected to produce heavy rain, high winds and extremely dangerous flash flooding, mud and debris flows. Flash floods, mud and debris flows can happen with little or no warning,” the evacuation order said.

“Do not delay in taking action to protect you, your family, your animals and your property. If you fail to take action and decide to stay in these areas, you could be stranded with no way for rescuers to reach you if you need help.”

The order, for which deputies reportedly went to all the doors and notified people on Monday, was issued only for areas north of Highway 192, closer to the Thomas Fire burn area and upstream for local creeks.

Downstream areas near Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean were in the voluntary evacuation zone, even though flood-hazard maps show they can be heavily affected by flooding.

Rob Lewin, who heads the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said he believes officials took all the necessary steps to alert the public of the approaching peril.

“We didn’t miss a step,” Lewin told Noozhawk. “We used every possible step days ahead to prepare people for what was going to happen. There’s no way anybody who was watching the news or paying attention didn’t get it.”

Lewin noted that on the Friday before the flood, officials held a press conference that was widely covered by local media, explaining the dangers of the approaching storm to the areas below the Thomas Fire burn area.

That was followed up by alerts on Saturday, he said, and then evacuation orders and warnings on Sunday evening, effective at noon Monday.

The intensity of rainfall above Montecito was a crucial factor in the devastation, Lewin said.

“It was a 200-year storm, and we had half an inch of rain in five minutes,” Lewin noted.

In contrast, he said, Carpinteria has a similar amount of rainfall, but not the intensity.

“In Carpinteria, we did have debris and things, but didn’t have the same impact,” Lewin said.

Asked if the incident played out the way emergency officials expected, Lewin said historically storms had not had the same impact in the lower-Montecito areas, which were mostly in evacuation warning zones rather than mandatory.

Santa Barbara County shared a map of post-fire flooding risk areas on Jan. 5, with hazards in blue. Many of the areas in blue, south of State Route 192, were not under a mandatory evacuation order. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County shared a map of post-fire flooding risk areas on Jan. 5, with hazards in blue. Many of the areas in blue, south of State Route 192, were not under a mandatory evacuation order.  (Courtesy photo)

“On the heels of the fire, where you have an area above it that’s denuded, and 10 times more likelihood of having problem to begin with, and on top of that, you have this kind of rainfall that I’m told even in a healthy watershed it couldn’t absorb that kind of water,” Brown said.

“It was a team of people that predicted this, and as it turned out they absolutely predicted it spot on. What they didn’t predict, and had no way of predicting, was the intensity of what was going to happen.”

Tom Fayram, water resources manager for the county, said, “I don’t know what I expected, other than I knew the entire area was at some point, in some part at risk.”

“We were evaluating risks based on a forecast of a half an inch to an inch an hour. And the actual event in places was 0.86 inches in 15 minutes, far above what even the predictions were. So the event ended up being massive,” Fayram said. 

The decisions for evacuation orders come from the Sheriff’s Department, Brown said, adding that, “ultimately, it’s my decision as the sheriff.”

Santa Barbara’s Coast Village Road, just north of Highway 101, flooded Tuesday morning. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara’s Coast Village Road, just north of Highway 101, flooded Tuesday morning.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

"But it is a decision that is not made in a vacuum," Brown added. "It comes from an assemblage of emergency managers. And that team of emergency management consists of the fire department, the flood control district people, people from Montecito.

"We had people from the (County Executive Office), our office of emergency management in the county, all of these people and more that were involved in this team.

They actually were in consultation with meteorologists, with people from the U.S. Forest Service, with people from a variety of different disciplines. CalFire had the damage assessment team that had done all their work to assess what the fire had done.

"All of this information came together and was channeled to our Office of Emergency Services, who recognized the danger, who called the emergency meeting basically on a Sunday afternoon and had the concurrence of everyone," Brown said.

There was a consensus on the evacuation orders and warnings issued Sunday, Brown said.

“In this instance, we had a lot more advance notice than a fire…And that’s why we agreed we needed to get the information out to the public as soon as possible.”

Brown, who has been sheriff since 2006, could not recall a previous occasion of the county issuing evacuation orders due to flooding.

On Thursday, he announced that the county was expanding the mandatory evacuation zone to get more residents out of Montecito and help access for rescue and repair crews. 

During the Storm

The timeline for the heavy rainfall kept moving, and the National Weather Service eventually pegged it at 2-5 a.m. Tuesday.

A flash flood warning was issued around 2:30 a.m. and heavy rain inundated the South Coast from 3:30 a.m. to 3:45 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.

Tom and Kirsten Walters and their girls evacuated their East Mountain Drive home to Montecito Inn ahead of the storm, but had to shelter in place as water rushed by on Olive Mill Road. Click to view larger
Tom and Kirsten Walters and their girls evacuated their East Mountain Drive home to Montecito Inn ahead of the storm, but had to shelter in place as water rushed by on Olive Mill Road.  (Courtesy photo)

A Montecito rainfall station recorded 0.54 inches of rainfall in just five minutes.

The sheriff’s department dispatch center received 600 9-1-1 calls between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. that day, according to Brown.

Residents described checking nearby creek beds and seeing nothing, and then hearing the roar of water and mud and debris coming downhill.

“It’s the only experience I’ve ever had in my life when you were really unsure about what your future might hold,” said Tom Walters, a kinesiology professor at Westmont College.

On Monday night, Walters, his wife Kirsten and their girls, Reese, 6, and Taylor, 4, evacuated to the Montecito Inn from their home on the 1800 block East Mountain Drive, but it wasn’t far enough to be out of harm’s way.

Around 3 a.m. Tuesday, alarms at the hotel started going off, and they could see the glowing sky and a fire burning in the mountains (structures burning from a gas explosion, according to emergency radio traffic at the time). 

“We threw everything together, grabbed the girls ... and ran outside to the valet entrance and talked to other people,” Walters said. "We could all see the fire on the hillside. Keys were locked in a valet box, and we wanted to find someone to open it and get out of there. Luckily we couldn’t get to our cars; it ended up being a blessing in disguise."

Equipment sits near the Montecito Inn Thursday, at 1295 Coast Village Road in Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
Equipment sits near the Montecito Inn Thursday, at 1295 Coast Village Road in Santa Barbara.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

As people stood outside trying to get to their cars, a police officer’s car came tearing down Olive Mill Road, sounding like it was wrecked, and spun around at Coast Village Road.

“He literally stepped out and said, ‘Go inside, the flood is coming,’” Walters said.

He and his family ran back inside and headed to the breezeway between buildings on the hotel’s third floor, and that’s when the river of water came pounding down Olive Mill Road.

“It was so incredible. I’m from Montana, and it looked like white water rapids in that part of the country,” he said. “It was hitting that sign at the intersection of Coast Village Road and Olive Mill, and it looked like a 6- or 8-foot wave coming off the sign.

“It flowed like that for it seemed like 20 or 30 minutes,” he said. 

They were trapped there, with the flood pouring by and the fire on the hillside. Even inside the hotel, they could hear the pounding noise of the water, which scared the girls, Walters said.

He saw several cars driving east on Coast Village Road that must not have realized how much mud and debris was in the road, and a few got stuck for hours, with drivers sitting inside with the dome light on.

The hotel didn’t have power or cell service, so no one inside knew what was going on for hours, or where to go, Walters said.

They stayed at the Montecito Inn until about 2 p.m. Tuesday, when a National Guard truck came by to pick up people.

“Literally as soon as we got down the road to Coffee Bean, I had cell service, there was no mud, and it was like the world was back to normal,” Walters said.

He and his family are staying in Santa Barbara, and they’re not sure about the condition of their home.

They’ve been checking aerial footage, and know that some neighbors’ homes burned down, and a few others have flood damage.

“Someone posted video looking down our street and it looks like a wasteland; we thought there was no way our house is there. It looks OK from helicopter footage – it’s at least there,” he said.

After the Deluge

At least 18 people were killed, dozens injured and hundreds were trapped as debris covered roads and flowed into – and through – homes.

The scope of the death and destruction is still developing, since search and rescue efforts are ongoing, and some areas are so inaccessible no emergency responders have made their way there yet.

On Thursday, the Sheriff’s-Coroner’s Office released the names of the those killed in the mudslide and floods, including four children.

The massive search and rescue effort continues, as repair crews assess damage to utilities, roads and other infrastructure. 

There was widespread devastation to homes and other property, with a reported 65 destroyed single-family residences and 466 damaged homes as of Thursday. 

A team from Los Angeles County searched under an Olive Mill Road underpass Thursday. Click to view larger
A team from Los Angeles County searched under an Olive Mill Road underpass Thursday.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The Thomas Fire burned a huge amount of Santa Barbara and Ventura county watersheds, and it could be three years before vegetation grows back to a point to reduce the risk of post-fire hazards like flash floods and debris flows, Fayram said. 

It's January, and Tuesday's deadly storm likely won't be the only rain Montecito gets this winter. 

"​That’s why we’re working so hard to get at least the base flow back into the creek channels, and then we’re going to open up those channels methodically, starting at the bottom because there’s no sense at the top if you don’t have it at the bottom," Fayram said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' is bringing in 100 vehicles, with more to follow, and will dispose of debris including trees and large rocks, most likely out of the area, Fayram said.

Their first task will be clearing out the 11 debris basins, starting with the ones they can get to, Fayram added. 

"There are four high-priority ones that they are going to focus on, starting work tomorrow — if not the next day.

"In the meantime our crews are working from the bottom up and the Corps will work on the debris basins, because we know if we get more rain, more debris will come down," Fayram said.

"Hopefully not nearly at the rate that we saw before, but we will still have debris coming down, and we want to build capacity if that happens." 

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