Volunteers with Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County remove debris and muck from the backyard of a house on Santa Isabel Lane in Montecito Oaks. The neighborhood off Olive Mill Road was hit hard by the Jan. 9 flash flooding and mud flows from nearby Montecito Creek. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
  • Volunteers with Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County remove debris and muck from the backyard of a house on Santa Isabel Lane in Montecito Oaks. The neighborhood off Olive Mill Road was hit hard by the Jan. 9 flash flooding and mud flows from nearby Montecito Creek.
  • A small army of volunteers from Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County descended on the hard-hit Montecito Oaks neighborhood to clear mud and debris from around residences. The local nonprofit organization is working with Habitat for Humanity International’s disaster response teams to spearhead volunteer clean-up efforts to help the victims of the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and mud flows.
  • Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County volunteers are among thousands of locals who have fanned out across Montecito to help residents with cleanup and recovery.
  • A swimming pool has been emptied of boulders and debris as part of the cleanup effort underway in the Montecito Oaks neighborhood.
  • Before heavy equipment can get to work in many yards, hand crews must dig out as much as they can in a search for valuables, personal belongings and buried landscaping features.
  • Volunteers are undaunterd by the piles of work facing them.
  • An American flag stands proudly and defiantly among the muck and debris.

Phillip Kyle is hauling material in a wheelbarrow outside his Montecito Oaks home. But this is no weekend gardening project.

His front yard is largely unrecognizable, filled with dried mud, ripped-out trees and debris left when the deadly Jan. 9 flash flood exploded out of Montecito Creek. The flood and mud raged through the neighborhood of what were once well-kept homes just north of North Jameson Lane east of Olive Mill Road.

The middle-of-the-night storm — which delivered nearly an inch of rain in just 15 minutes over the Thomas Fire burn area above Montecito — sent muck tearing down the denuded mountain slopes to the ocean. The destruction included 23 deaths, hundreds of badly damaged homes, blown-out roadways and a mile-long stretch of Highway 101 closed for nearly two weeks.

Wearing rain boots, Kyle worked last week to remove debris from outside his single-story home on Santa Isabel Lane. His yard bore the brunt of the damage and debris filled the backyard swimming pool.

“It’s moderate house damage and a little structural — mostly in the yard and pool,” said Kyle, who has lived in the house with his wife and three children for the last 12 years.

Even as rescuers continued to search for victims, Santa Barbara County immediately launched a massive cleanup operation to clear roads, empty 13 catch basins and pull debris out of creeks to lessen risks of damage from future storms.

For Montecito residents, however, the job of cleaning up their homes and yards is theirs alone. Compounding the challenge was the decision by authorities to keep them away from their property for nearly three weeks.

“We should be back in three to six months,” Kyle told Noozhawk.

On at least three other lots around Kyle’s house, an army of volunteers with Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County shoveled through the thick mud.

The volunteers were completing the handwork around the houses so heavy equipment could get closer to the properties.

“There’s a lot of spaces where heavy machinery can’t go … along the sides of houses,” said Rose Levy, Habitat for Humanity’s program manager.

Hundreds of volunteers descended on Montecito to provide essential cleanup services as soon as the Sheriff’s Department lifted its mandatory evacuation orders in the disaster area on Jan. 27.

The storm turned the Montecito Oaks neighborhood into a field of debris, with boulders, downed trees, broken branches and personal belongings carried downstream.

“I’m helping dig out the corner of a house, and it has taken almost two hours,” said Jon Martin, board president of Habitat for Humanity.

Some houses escaped the rush of destruction.

Before the intense rains hit that morning, Noelle Strogoff and her three children had evacuated their home on Montecito Creek off Olive Mill Road.

“I know the creek,” Strogoff said. “In good times, when there’s vegetation on the mountains, the creek can come flowing fast. I’ve heard those boulders come down before, and it’s scary.”

Three weeks before, the Thomas Fire had ripped through the mountains and foothills above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria. The wildfire burned the hills bare of vegetation that would have soaked in the rain and anchored the soil.

“I thought, ‘this is not going to be pretty,’ so we took off,” Strogoff said.

In the days following the disaster, authorities escorted Strogoff through the hard-hit neighborhood near Casa Dorinda. She found her home standing and intact.

“In a sea of homes that are devastated, destroyed and most beyond repair — my house sits tall and, oddly, like a sore thumb,” she said. “Everything around it is decimated.”

The house, which she and her late husband built after the 1995 flood, is elevated two feet above base flood elevation, a requirement to qualify for federal flood insurance. Base flood elevation is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s projection of how high water would rise in a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year, according to the agency.

The water is supposed to slosh under her two-story house.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t just water — it was mud, but it worked,” Strogoff said.

A six-inch puddle of mud made its way under a French door near the living room, she said.

Mud, boulders and debris were scattered across her one-acre property and filled the swimming pool. The mud pushed its way under her house, and the garage was deluged with debris and mud.

Patio furniture and flower pots were tossed about, and the air conditioning unit must be replaced, Strogoff said.

Inside, the house is fine, she said.

“There’s some work to do,” Strogoff acknowledged. “Nobody in a million years expected it to be a mud flow, especially one of such magnitude.”

The damage estimate has not yet been determined, she said, adding that her insurance company, AIG, has been “helpful” and “good.”

Strogoff said she also registered for FEMA assistance.

“They said whatever insurance doesn’t cover, to call,” she said. “I haven’t had to do that. I’m waiting to see how things work out.”

Strogoff is renting a temporary house, and plans on returning to her residence in October “at the earliest.”

She said her property is declared safe and utilities, including water and electricity, work.

Deciding to stay off the property for nearly nine months is a precaution for the safety of her children, a 9 year old and 6-year-old twins.

“I could go home now,” she said. “The decision is more of a safety and emotional thing.”

Maintenance and heavy-duty construction continue for the damaged structures all around Strogoff’s house. The once quiet neighborhood is now noisy with the incessant sounds of heavy equipment and dump trucks.

“It’s going to be a lot of construction,” she said. “Construction always takes longer than you think it will.”

Strogoff is concerned that the sights of destruction could bring emotional trauma. Her children often rode their bikes on the streets where so many homes have been reduced to piles of rubble.

“It’s just one home after the next, and all of their friends lived on the lane … it’s gone,” she said. “I wanted to wait until it’s cleaned up. I don’t want to have to put them through it yet. It’s upsetting to the children.”

Strogoff has a positive outlook.

“I am trying to look forward with a positive attitude, and believe it will all come back better than ever,” she said.

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