Montecito debris flow survivor Marco Farrell
Debris flow survivor Marco Farrell is seen in a hallway at his home on Olive Mill Road in Montecito. The 11-year-old family dog and Farrell, along with his mother and father, huddled and waited in the mud for about 90 minutes until being rescued during the deadly Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Preparation helped Montecito resident Marco Farrell, although he didn’t know that at the time of the January 2018 deadly debris flows.

The two years since have provided him the opportunity to reflect on the disaster.

“I feel like everything I have done in my life led me to be prepared to endure what happened two years ago,” said Farrell, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “Little decisions you make minutes, hours, days, weeks, months prior to the disaster can save your life or cost you your life.”

Farrell said that big weather events have always been part of his life and interests. He has called the seaside community home since the 1980s, during which El Niño brought abundant rainfall. The years of massive precipitation left a big impression on Farrell.

“I’m aware of what is coming down the turnpike,” he said. “These storms we are experiencing now seem to be much more dynamic.”

Farrell grew up working on boats, and he said he prides himself on being as prepared as he can for anything. In the ocean waters, he stayed hyper-focused on the task at hand and got it done.

“You don’t have time to plan when you are in rough seas, and then you have a problem happen,” he said. “You can stress about it when you hit the docks safely.”

He spent four days sandbagging in advance of a powerful storm in January 2018. It was something he could do to better protect his home in the 100 block of Olive Mill Road and the surrounding properties. He made dozens of sandbags for four properties.

Rains have spilled into the driveway as the result of storms, and in the early hours of Jan. 9, 2018, Farrell captured footage of the alarming moments before a river of debris and mud rushed down Olive Mill Road in Montecito.

Officials issued warnings and evacuations for areas below the Thomas Fire burn area before the storm arrived. Farrell resides in an area that was not under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders, he said.

He organized plans. When the property received an inch of water, Farrell said, they planned to head over to their art studio that’s located farther from the street, and a tent was placed on the small hill behind the home.

Around midnight, Farrell wrote a Facebook post cautioning residents to be aware and to look out for hazardous weather.

“The words are etched in my memory,” he said. “Until dawn begins to chase them away, we will feel his fury.”

He recalled waking up in the early morning to intense rainfall striking the Montecito home. Farrell’s video shows torrential rain in the night sky and water rushing in the street gutter. He heard the roaring water before he saw it.

“Here comes the flash flood,” he said in the video.

Seconds later, a white van pulled up in front of the house. The driver was Farrell’s friend.

“Turn around,” Farrell yelled in the video. “The flash flood is right there. Get out of here. Go.”

What happened next was terrifying. A fast-moving flow containing water, mud, debris and other materials rapidly went downhill. The street looked completely impassible.

Farrell ran toward the house. His now 72-year-old mother and 82-year-old father, and the family’s three-legged dog, Lucas, were inside.

“Close the door,” Farrell screamed. “Get ready to go out … wake dad up.”

More than 30 seconds into the cellphone video, Farrell was outside amid an eerie orange glow in the dark sky. A gas main explosion, caused by the debris flows, burned several homes and lit the sky before sunrise. A loud noise was one of the first indications of danger that Farrell said he heard that night.

Standing on Santo Tomas Lane, Farrell spun around and began sprinting home, yelling “flash flood.” That occurred before he took the video.

Farrell had the muscle memory to instinctively get to safety. He was in survival mode.

When he wasn’t making sandbags, Farrell watched YouTube videos of flash floods and debris flows.

“It had become a part of my psyche,” he said. “I knew that noise was not good and I needed to flee.”

Farrell and his family were trapped. Thick mud and other materials had been rising all around the home. He recalled seeing above-knee mud. There was a blaring boom. And the front door breached. 

“It sounded like the biggest Clydesdale horse kicked it with all the fury in the world,” he said. “That’s what scared me.”

The 11-year-old family dog, along with Farrell and his parents, Jeff and Gabrielle, huddled in a hallway inside their home. They waited in the mud for about 90 minutes until a passing firetruck from Santa Maria brought them to safety.

“So many things went horribly wrong,” Farrell said. “So many things went incredibly right for us to survive this.”

The family had to rebuild their home after the devastating debris flows. He recalled digging his one-story home out of the mud, and trucks helping take the loads of dirt and mud.

Friends helped the family with temporary housing in the area. They bounced around spots.

“We had to move eight times in the last two years,” Farrell said. “The eighth time, it was finally back home, in October.”

Farrell said he doesn’t go anywhere without a headlamp. It was a critical tool during the emergency situation in Montecito. Light offered peace of mind and reduced some fear and stress. He provided headlamps to friends and families after the debris flows.

“It made such a difference,” he said, adding that he also had LED lanterns.

The debris flows killed 23 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and structures just weeks after the Thomas Fire blackened most of the watershed above Montecito.

Farrell said that getting used to sounds can be hard in the aftermath of the debris flows. Trucks driving along Highway 101 make “the same low vibration frequency as the rocks coming down the street at night.”

It doesn’t affect him as often, but the sound remains.

“I have posttraumatic stress, and it’s just starting to rear its ugly head now,” Farrell said.

On Thursday night, Farrell and hundreds of others attended a remembrance ceremony at Westmont College in Montecito.

“We greet each other with hugs — and deep, sincere hugs,” he said. “There is a lot of collateral damage. The trauma that we experienced being here, that’s just starting to surface for us.”

The greater community also is grappling with the aftermath of the Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding and debris flows. The effects are visible in some neighborhoods and roadways in Montecito. 

Two years later, Glen Oaks Drive is just one area that shows the damage from the flooding and debris flows. Giant boulders are stacked alongside piles of dirt and wood chippings. Properties are treeless, and heavy equipment sits where a home is planned.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.