Just after dawn on Jan. 9, Montecito firefighters and Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies assess conditions amid the catastrophic destruction along the 800 block of Riven Rock Road, which runs along Hot Springs Creek, and the hard-hit Riven Rock enclave where one resident was swept to his death. Many neighborhood residents defied mandatory evacuation orders that were issued prior to the storm. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk file photo)

Results so far from a survey of Montecito residents show that many of them did not understand the dynamics of a debris flow, or the gravity of their own risk, before the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows, according to a team of scientists studying the disaster.

“They couldn’t imagine boulders that size, mud that high,” research scientist Laura Myers said.

Laura Myers

A team led by senior research scientist Laura Myers of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety is undertaking a comprehensive study of the emergency warnings and alerts for the Thomas Fire and Montecito disasters. “The biggest failure in any event is communication,” she says. (University of Alabama photo)

The National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard office and the University of Alabama partnered up for the study, “CA Mudslide, 2018 Weather Warning Assessment,” focused on the debris flows, which includes a survey of Montecito-area residents.

Eric Boldt, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service, organized a meeting at the Santa Barbara County Emergency Operations Center last Wednesday with Office of Emergency Management staff, public information officers from various agencies, and members of local media organizations.

The point of the meeting, and what Boldt calls an Integrated Warning Team, was to evaluate the messaging and warning information ahead of and during the Jan. 9 debris flows and think of ways to improve.

The goal is to refine the messaging, outreach and evacuation protocols in a way that reaches more people, makes residents understand risks and “actually do something next time, get out of harm’s way,” he said.

Survey Results So Far

Myers’ team is researching the warning process prior to and during the debris flows, although the survey also includes questions about the Thomas Fire, which swept through Montecito on Dec. 15 and 16, denuding the mountainsides and leaving them exposed and destabilized.

Myers, a senior research scientist at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, video conferenced into the Wednesday meeting to share information from the survey results so far as well as ways county agencies could improve their “catastrophic communication” messaging.

“The biggest failure in any event is communication,” she said.

Myers said the survey, which has been available for about three weeks, has found that many of the respondents (so far) live in the “voluntary” evacuation zone of Montecito south of East Valley Road/Highway 192, and they believed the designation indicated that their area was not as vulnerable as other areas.

As with the Thomas Fire, Santa Barbara County officials ordered mandatory evacuations for Montecito neighborhoods north of East Valley Road/Highway 192 prior to the Jan. 9 storm, while voluntary evacuation warnings were issued for neighborhoods below the east-west demarcation.

Of the 23 people who were killed in the flash flooding and debris flows, 19 of them lived in the voluntary evacuation zone.

Other residents responding to the survey said they understood the seriousness and knew they should evacuate, but had been kept out of their homes for so long before and after the Thomas Fire that they thought, “do we really have to?” Myers said.

It came down to how residents processed the information and evaluated the risks, she said.

“A lot of people didn’t know what to do, they didn’t have a plan,” she said, noting that residents said they weren’t sure where to go, or what to do with their animals and assets.

Residents also didn’t understand what to do when they received the county’s early morning Wireless Emergency Alerts, around 3:50 a.m., advising them to get to higher ground, she said.

The overall result of this, Myers said, points to the need for education.

Emergency managers need to prepare people for something they’ve never experienced, and can’t imagine, she said. It’s important to get information out in a timely manner so residents have time to act, and act in the best way for safety, she added.

“How do we get people to imagine their vulnerability?” Myers asked.


Members of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Strike Team 1840A spent more than a week searching for victims of the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows in Montecito’s Riven Rock neighborhood. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk file photo)

Rob Lewin, director of the Office of Emergency Management, mused that Californians know the Richter scale for earthquake magnitudes, and perhaps a similar scale could be developed for debris flow magnitudes.

Myers’ survey results so far indicate that respondents were not familiar with the term “debris flow” before the Jan. 9 event — nor were some people in the OEM — and officials lamented that it is not as well-known a term as landslide, mudslide or flash flood.

Public safety responders and emergency management officials weren’t consistently calling the debris flow a debris flow in the days after the disaster, with people referring to it as a flood, a mudslide, a mud flow or a debris flow.

In February, the county settled on “1/9 debris flow” (which Noozhawk writes as the Jan. 9 Montecito debris flows) as the official term for the disaster.

Lewin said as the storm approached, emergency managers had to educate themselves and other county responders to “wake them up to the same reality we think we’re seeing.”

As they were doing so, and creating the interactive evacuation maps, Lewin recalled thinking, “Am I Chicken Little, or am I Paul Revere?”

Some people get the information and understand the risks, and still make the decision not to evacuate, he said.

“We were reaching essentially everybody,” he said. “How do we get that person to take action? I’m at a loss how.”

Improving Communication with the Public

Over the next several months, the county plans to work on improving its messaging and protocols.

Lewin said the Office of Emergency Management plans to change its new 72-hour pre-storm evacuation plan, which was thought to be a good idea at the time.

“We will have to do evacuations next winter, but we’re not sure how many,” he said.

During Wednesday’s meeting, county staff and public information officers from various agencies also discussed ways to reach more people with its warning messages, including alerts and staffed kiosks like the ones set up during the Thomas Fire.

Attendees at the meeting also brought up the county’s struggle to provide timely emergency information in Spanish during the fire and debris flows.

“Our legislators were hard on us, appropriately,” Lewin said.

He told the group that the county is specifically seeking a Spanish-speaking hire for its vacant emergency manager position, but that the Office of Emergency Management doesn’t have the staff or resources to be publishing all information in both languages simultaneously.

“It’s not acceptable to put out information that’s not (available) in Spanish,” said Hillary Blackerby, marketing and communications manager for the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District.

County communications director Gina DePinto said the county was “hit or miss with Spanish” but the goal is to be releasing bilingual information “across the board.”

How to Share Your Experience

The survey by Myers’ team is helping with research of the warning process prior to and during the debris flows, as well as the Thomas Fire.

Myers said “broader is better” for people filling out the survey, so people outside of Montecito and the evacuation areas are welcome to respond as well.

All information provided in the survey is confidential, according to the website.

Click here to access the online survey, which is available in English and in Spanish by selecting a language at the top of the page.

Several other studies are circulating or in the works, including one by a UC Berkeley doctoral student, Stephen Wong, that focuses on wildfire evacuation decision-making.

“Disasters have a major impact on the built environment and many situations require the movement of people away from harm to reduce risk and ensure human safety,” the UC Berkeley survey website says.

“This evacuation of people is an integral part of emergency management plans. Despite advances in transportation management strategies, evacuations continue to cause congested conditions on transportation networks.

“At the same time, vulnerable populations frequently lack adequate resources for evacuation and sheltering, and a large proportion of the population do not comply with evacuation orders. As part of this study, we are analyzing how individuals make decisions after receiving a mandatory or recommended evacuation order.”

The Santa Barbara Public Library is asking local residents to share their experiences during the Thomas Fire, as part of a project to collect stories for a California Wildfires Story Project.

“We aim to collect a public record, including oral histories, memoirs, short films, images and documents, to be used to memorialize these experiences, assist with psychological and emotional recovery, and inform emergency planning and civic officials as part of their planning and preparedness efforts,” the library said.

The library is partnering with the California State Library and the Berkeley-based StoryCenter on the project.

Click here to share your stories from Carpinteria.

Click here to share your stories from Montecito.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.