Volunteers help impacted families who lacked enough insurance to cover damages (Habitat for Humanity)

As families vowed to rebuild their homes following the horrific Montecito mudslides, many were met with another tragedy: finding themselves under insured.

Volunteers, community organizations and donors from around the globe have stepped in to help meet this shortfall, and one of the groups that has its boots in the mud is Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County.

Habitat for Humanity is working directly with families for long-term disaster relief and rapidly moving onto providing home repairs to the most vulnerable populations.

To assist in its efforts, United Way of Santa Barbara County’s Long Term Recovery Committee selected Habitat for Humanity as one of 18 community organizations to receive initial disaster relief funding from the United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund, a total of $801,000.

“Thanks to this additional funding, our organization has an expanded capacity to serve families on a long-term basis,” Jon Peterson, Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County CEO, said of the $50,000 contribution.

“The impact of the fire and floods has resulted in much loss, but we feel fortunate to still be able to address the needs of those most affected,” he said.

Marco Farrell and his parents, Jeff and Gabrielle Farrell, are one of the families being served by Habitat for Humanity.

Realizing the Farrell’s insurance would not cover all the damages brought on by the storm, and upon learning that Jeff Farrell served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, the organization was motivated to start rebuilding the family’s home, brick by brick.

“They were incredible, from day one,” Marco Farrell said.

He said his family was surprised Habitat for Humanity had chosen to help them. “They ended up saving a lot of our valuables. It’s given us hope and internal strength to know that all these people were coming to help and volunteer their own time,” he said.

He recalled waking up at 4 a.m. Jan. 9 to torrential rain pounding down on the Montecito home he had grown up in.

Seeing the glow of the Thomas Fire through his window, Marco decided to go outside to see if the fire was heading in their direction. But when he went out, he heard the sound of rushing flood waters flowing through their neighborhood.

“I heard this horrendous noise and knew what it was,” he said. “I started running yelling, ‘Flash flood, flash flood!’ I ended up running home and telling my mom to wake up my dad. The mud hit the house and broke open the kitchen door and instantly, we had knee-high mud.”

“I did have about five or six seconds of extreme fear, but I kicked into survival mode and knew I had to save my parents,” he said. “I just focused on surviving by the second.”

The family waited in the mud for 90 minutes until a firetruck from Santa Maria came to rescue them and their three-legged dog, Lucas.

“The destruction from the Thomas Fire and ensuing flooding is nothing short of staggering, bringing very real consequences for our entire community,” said Steve Ortiz, United Way of Santa Barbara County president/CEO.

“But throughout the aftermath, we’ve seen amazing people and organizations step forward to help neighbors return to a state of normalcy,” he said. “We’re proud to support Habitat for Humanity’s work and thank everyone who has contributed to the United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund.”

The United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund has grown to more than $4.4 million, and the next round of Santa Barbara County disbursements is focusing on individuals and families directly.

The phase two distribution is being carried out in partnership with organizations who provide case management for the individuals impacted by the disasters.

Every dollar contributed to the United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund will be used to fund services that address the needs of the individuals and families affected by the disasters.

For more about recipient agencies, as well as application materials for individual and family assistance, visit www.unitedwaysb.org/thomas-recovery.

— Angel Pacheco for United Way of Santa Barbara County.