Pixel Tracker

Friday, December 14 , 2018, 11:02 pm | Fair 50º


From the Air, Enormity of Montecito Flood Disaster Comes Into Focus

Death toll rises to 17 and crews continue searching for survivors and more victims


This story was last updated at 11:50 a.m. Thursday.

The scenes of destruction in Montecito from Tuesday’s deadly flash-flooding are almost unbelievable.

Demolished homes, cars flung around like toys, boulder-strewn roadways and a seemingly endless amount of mud and debris.

Images taken on the once bucolic streets of Montecito seem like something right out of a Hollywood movie.

Seen from the air, the magnitude of the natural disaster becomes overwhelming.

That’s something Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown learned first-hand Wednesday as he, County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato and others took a helicopter tour of the devastation.

“What we saw, even though we have been working this incident for several days now, and we’re very familiar with what had happened, it was still very stunning to see the extent of the devastation, to see the breadth of the area that has been impacted so terribly,” Brown said at an afternoon press briefing.

Rescue crews search a demolished residence on East Valley Road in Montecito. Click to view larger
Rescue crews search a demolished residence on East Valley Road in Montecito. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

He had earlier described the scene on the ground as “like a World War I battlefield.”

Under sunny skies that belied the arduous and at times grim task assigned to them, some 500 responders remained in “search and rescue mode,” trying to reach people in need of evacuation, as well as those who perished when near-record rainfall fell on the steep hillsides denuded by the massive Thomas Fire last month, said Kevin Taylor, deputy chief for the Montecito Fire Protection District and the incident commander.

The effort was supported by 10 search dogs, large military vehicles capable of traversing the deep mud and water, and a fleet of helicopters used both for rescues/evacuations and to ferry responders in to inaccessible locations, Taylor said.

Within minutes in the early hours Tuesday, deadly rivers filled with mud, rocks and debris roared down from the burn area above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria toward the ocean, obliterating nearly everything in their paths.

Officials announced that two more bodies had been recovered Wednesday, bringing the death toll thus far to 17.

Residents survey damage to a home on Glen Oaks Drive in Montecito. Click to view larger
Residents survey damage to a home on Glen Oaks Drive in Montecito. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

They have not yet released the names of any victims, but a second one was made public Wednesday.

Riskin Partners, the luxury real estate team of Village Properties, announced that partner Rebecca Riskin, who had been reported missing, had died in the onslaught.

“The confirmation of her loss is incredibly devastating to her friends, family, and our community,” the company said in a statement. “Per her wishes, we intend to carry out her life’s work with the same strength, grace and elegance that wholly defined Rebecca. Rebecca was an exceptional woman, and her legacy will continue to live on and thrive through her children, Robert and Julia, her husband Ken Grand, and her namesake firm, Riskin Partners.” 

On Tuesday, Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula shared the name of another victim, benefactor Roy Rohter, who founded the St. Augustine Academy in Ventura. 

Rohter was swept away in a mudslide and did not survive. ​Rohter's wife, Theresa, also was swept away, but was rescued and was hospitalized in stable condition, the college said.

Personnel with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office have been assisting Santa Barbara County officials in the Montecito flooding disaster. As of Wednesday, 17 people were confirmed dead. Click to view larger
Personnel with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office have been assisting Santa Barbara County officials in the Montecito flooding disaster. As of Wednesday, 17 people were confirmed dead. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Brown said the Coroner’s Office expects to begin releasing the names of those killed as soon as Thursday.

The Coroner’s Office has been working around the clock to identify victims and notify relatives, Brown said, an effort that was bolstered Wednesday by the arrival of personnel from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

The number of people reported missing was at eight Thursday morning, and likely will still rise. 

“I think that there are probably people that we have in our coroner’s office that haven’t been necessarily reported missing yet,” Brown told Noozhawk.

“And there’s a very strong likelihood, given the amount of destruction and the amount of homes that are still inaccessible that there still could be people alive or dead in those other homes.”

Boulders are strewn in front of an entrance to the Riven Rock neighborhood in Montecito. Click to view larger
Boulders are strewn in front of an entrance to the Riven Rock neighborhood in Montecito. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Authorities initially reported Thursday that there were 48 missing people, but it was an error, they said. 

The damage to property is still being compiled, but authorities said Thursday morning that 65 single-family homes destroyed and another 446 damaged, along with eight commercial buildings destroyed and 20 others damaged.

Caltrans crews are working to repair inundated portions of Highway 101, but the freeway isn’t expected to be reopened until Monday at the earliest, according to CHP Capt. Cindy Pontes.

The Montecito Water District is reporting major damage to its facilities, with much of the community it serves now with little or no water.

General Manager Nick Turner said it likely would be several more days before the district has an idea of when water service will be restored.

In the meantime, emergency distribution of potable water was planned from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday for Montecito Water District customers, Montecito Fire Station No. 2, 2300 Sycamore Canyon Road, the shopping center at San Ysidro and East Valley roads, and the Summerland Post Office at 2245 Lillie Ave.

Most of Montecito and parts of Summerland and Carpinteria have been placed in a "public safety exclusion zone," with only residents, responders and the media allowed in.

Brown pleaded with all others to stay away so that crews can do their work unimpeded, and said unauthorized people found in the zone would be arrested and charged with misdemeanors.

Many of those who survived the flooding and aftermath have been sharing their stories.

Among them are Diana Bow and Janice Graham, who live on Arroqui Road near Crane Country Day School.

The rush of water and debris coming down Romero Creek early Tuesday morning “sounded like a train, plus helicopters,” Bow said. 

“We had just checked like half an hour earlier to see if there was any water here and there was hardly nothing, and I figured we had time,” she told Noozhawk Wednesday.

“All of a sudden we heard that rumble, and the whole house started shaking. Before you knew it, the water was like five feet over the bridge, and just everything – trees, boulders – were flowing through.”

The mass of mud, water and debris dragged cars out of the carport and deposited vehicles around the property, poured into the pool, and snuck into the garage to knock the washer and dryer over.

The road off North Jameson Lane, just north of Highway 101, was not within the mandatory evacuation zone, Graham noted.

“We rebuilt our house, and when we rebuilt it we built it 3 feet higher because we knew we were in a flood plain,” she said.

There are still many people missing, and people can report a missing person to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department dispatch non-emergency line at 805.683.2724. 

The county has also opened a Family Assistance Center for people impacted by the storm and those trying to find loved ones. 

It is open daily  from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance Avenue in Santa Barbara, and is staffed by personnel from the Red Cross, county Sheriff's Department, Behavioral Wellness Department, Social Services and Public Health. 

A toll-free number for a call center has also been set up at the church, and people can call 833.688.5551 or text 805.699.0165. 

Residents are encouraged to sign up for alerts from the Aware & Prepare program, and to heed all evacuation orders and warnings.

» Click here for Santa Barbara County’s interactive map of possible flooding areas.

» Click here for road closures in Santa Barbara County.

» Click here to sign up for Noozhawk’s free breaking news text alerts to your cell phone.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >