Montecito has been my home since 1988. My children were raised here and attended local schools. My best friends live here and my business is located here.
This is my town.
Whether it’s Coast Village Road or the Upper Village, this place is a larger version of the bar at Cheers where everyone knows my name.
I shop at Montecito shops. I eat at Montecito restaurants. I buy coffee at Jeannine’s, Starbucks and Pierre Lafond. I eat tacos at Los Arroyos. And I have cocktails at The Four Seasons The Biltmore and San Ysidro Ranch.
In 2012, after a decision to downsize, I chose a house with a sunny mountain view on the border of Montecito and Summerland. When I try to describe the location of my third home in the 93108, I use the QAD campus or Ortega Hill as the landmarks.
“Oh, so you live in Summerland?” most ask, to which I reply, “No, I live in Montecito.”
When the power goes out, we are on the Carpinteria grid, and when the water bill arrives, it’s from the Montecito Water District. It’s almost enough to make you feel neither here nor there!
My two other other houses were walking distance to Montecito’s commercial areas. While now I have a five-minute car ride, the vibe is a little bit beach and a little bit remote.
With the Thomas Fire fast approaching in December, authorities knocked on my door at 5:30 a.m. with instructions to evacuate. For more than a week, my daughter and I — and our dogs — moved from hotel to hotel before being allowed to return to a house that smelled like cigarettes and was covered in ash.
And then came Jan. 9, when I was awakened by cell phone alerts. Instantly, I knew the predicted rain had caused damage but I had no idea just how severe it was.
Like everyone else who was not under mandatory or even voluntary evacuation orders, I tried to quickly connect the dots. No TV, Internet or land line telephone was my first indication that I was technologically cut off.
My cell phone was working so the first call I made was to my children, then to my Montecito posse. With bits and pieces of information about the unfolding disaster, I tried driving down North Jameson Road to Coast Village Road to see the damage for myself.
I was totally unprepared for the flooding at Sheffield Drive and floating debris, which forced me to turn around. It would be last time I could use that road for more than 2½ weeks — or access life in Montecito “on the other side of the hill,” since roads into Santa Barbara were impassable.
The cacophony of helicopters conducting search-and-rescue missions was a constant, and law-enforcement checkpoints with patrol car lights flashing were everywhere. It was scary, and as close as I remember to the El Niño storm of 1995.
Tragically, I would soon learn of the unimaginable loss of life — including people I knew very intimately — as well as the damage to hundreds of homes.
With only power and water for the initial days following the disaster, I hunkered down with daughter and dogs and tried to get my bearings. Taking inventory of our supplies and first aid, I figured there would soon be some accessibility to Carpinteria but not Santa Barbara.
In Carpinteria, I went to the bank, the post office and transferred prescription medications to the Carp CVS, which had put its Montecito clerks to work there. I visited Albertsons and Smart & Final Extra!, Jack’s Bagels, The Food Liaison, Starbucks, Zookers, Lucky Llama, Crushcakes for cupcakes, Lemos Feed & Supply for dog food, and the Carpinteria Veterinary Hospital for two sick puppies.
The only way to get to Santa Barbara to see my granddaughters; keep dentist, exercise or hair appointments; or go to markets and restaurants there was via Amtrak from Carpinteria.
Most Montecitans who chose to stay had that deer-in-the-headlights look when I ran into them in Carpinteria. We exchanged information and often condolences. Familiar daily haunts removed, we had to improvise. In Summerland, the American Red Cross of Central California-Pacific Coast Chapter distributed water and Direct Relief offered food at the community post office.
By Week Two we got the hang of boiling water and going to my neighbors who had DirecTV and wine for the 4 p.m. news briefing. This lifeline to information and the bonds with my neighbors were truly comforting. While some people left town, I decided that with power I would stay.
And then the gas was shut off in the middle of a therapeutic shower and I felt like those guys taking the New Year’s Day plunge in the ocean. A cold shower is refreshing for some but not for me. By the next day, I was on the train to Santa Barbara to reunite with friends who had taken up residency at the Hotel Californian and the Santa Barbra Inn.
The wait was long; I stood up for the 15-minute ride, which passed shocking damage along creeks and streets. It felt like I was watching a movie.
I had a lovely reunion with my family and a hot shower. Later, I returned home on the train with hundreds of others who were all talking to each other even though none of us had known each other before we boarded.
Strangers, sharing stories. I listened in on many conversations and was struck by the palpable grief and thankfulness for being spared.
What was not my usual routine became a new one. As Highway 101 opened more lanes south, it made it easier to get to Carpinteria and, eventually, to Los Angeles for an overnight stay. But Santa Barbara was still cut off.
Of course, what I had taken for granted, and never thought twice about, sure got my attention once it was removed. I became a news conduit to my friends in town and out. I was on every community alert, hungrily pored over my Noozhawk A.M. and P.M. Reports, and listed to harrowing first-person accounts from flood victims.
It was amazing what three weeks off your routine feels like. This was not a vacation.
Law-enforcement officers at my intersection demanded my driver’s license before allowing me to get to my home as they kept alert for looters or lookie-loos.
Google Maps and Waze were incorrectly directing motorists through Summerland to Ortega Ridge Road as short cuts to a day of wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. Being turned around by officers at the checkpoints, they were as confused as some of the locals.
The police presence was comforting and it brought me into contact with first-responders as I never had before. My granddaughter and I baked chocolate chip cookies that were received with much joy by the officers pulling 12-hour shifts at the end of the road.
As Highway 101 is now open and Coast Village Road is very slowly starting to come back to life — sans restaurants, for now — the traffic is bumper to bumper from detours going south.
I ventured out to get coffee and a salad at The Honor Bar, which was only open because it had a portable water tank brought in. I sat with my friends, Lisa and Richard Scibird, who were already networking with other community members on a fundraising event to help Montecito merchants. Most important on that sunny morning was the opportunity to just see familiar faces and to be able to drive into Santa Barbara on a whim. It all reminded me why I call Montecito home.
I also went to see one of my favorite retailers, Irwin Eve, at Occhiali. For 30 years, he and his wife and staff have served and loved this community. Delivering glasses to flood victims and working out of his downtown store, he said that he had just “dug in.”
A neighboring merchant, Lisa Stern at Chasen, was giving away clothes to those left homeless by the deadly flooding and mud flows.
We decided that the healing would begin as neighbors could start connecting. Having schools back in session helps both children and parents.
Our amazing community is hard at work to try to figure out where we should go. But fixing broken pipes and roadways will be far easier than fixing broken hearts.
— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.