Rescue crews continue to search wreckage for missing people two days after powerful mudslides swept through the Southern California community of Montecito, killing at least 17 people and injuring more than two dozen.
The disaster took place in the same community where just weeks ago firefighters confronted the largest wildfire in the state’s history. The back-to-back disasters ― fire and flooding ― may seem like a cruel irony, but they’re directly related.
A number of factors have played a role in how destructive and how lethal the mudslides turned out to be.
Some Santa Barbara and Ventura county residents who had just returned to their homes after evacuating in December from the Thomas fire were reluctant to pack up and go again when they received a flood warning. Some lost their homes, others their lives, as a result.
Local officials released numerous warnings in the early days of January as heavy rainfall was forecaste, but they chose not to send out emergency alerts to cellphones until after the flooding had begun. They worried that the disaster-fatigued residents might not take an alert seriously, and didn’t want to be seen as “crying wolf.”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said there “isn’t an exact science” for predicting the scope of a disaster.
“Obviously, a lot depends on Mother Nature, on the magnitude of the rainfall, the magnitude of the mudslides and so forth,” the sheriff told reporters on Tuesday.
But given the torrential rains that were predicted, a devastating disaster was almost inevitable. It’s no secret that drought, wildfires and mudslides ― all three of which California has witnessed of late ― are connected.
The state just emerged from a five-year drought emergency, which Gov. Jerry Brown declared officially over in April of 2017. The long drought period, which experts say is among the extreme weather patterns exacerbated by climate change, made the land especially fire-prone. Not surprisingly, 2017 saw the largest and deadliest wildfires in California’s history.
The Thomas fire burned through over 280,000 acres in Southern California in December, leaving the land scorched and flood-prone. Vegetation whose root systems might have held back the mudflow was destroyed, and the stage was set for deadly and fast-moving mudslides as Southern California was deluged with heavy rainfall.
Aware of these environmental trends, officials warned about the potential of mudslides on local government websites and social media, as well as in news outlets and community emails.
Jeff Gater, Santa Barbara County’s emergency manager, told The Los Angeles Times that over 200,000 emails warning of the possible disaster were delivered to residents who had signed up for such messages.
But when it came to deciding whether or not to use a push alert system ― the same one used to sent out Amber Alerts for missing children ― county officials initially opted not to.
The state’s emergency alert protocol has been under scrutiny since the October wildfire disaster in Northern California, which left more than 40 people dead. Officials in Sonoma County — where over half of the fatalities occurred — had decided not to deploy the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, and some survivors of the 21 blazes later said they were inadequately warned.
When wildfires flared in Southern California, state officials acted fast to send alerts to some 8 million smartphones in the area. But Gater said that an alert system shouldn’t be overused.
“If you tell everyone to get out … the next time people won’t listen,” he said. “If you cry wolf, people stop listening.”
The alert was ultimately sent out at roughly 4 a.m. local time, the L.A. Times reported, when the flooding had already began and it was clear the situation was only going to get worse.
Meanwhile, Brown said sheriff’s deputies had knocked on 7,000 doors in the mandatory evacuation area ― mostly in and around Montecito ― telling residents to leave their homes. Not all of them heeded the warning.
“There was evacuation fatigue from the fire,” local resident Marco Farrell told the Associated Press.
Farrell and his parents had evacuated for more than a week during the fire, and decided not to leave again when a voluntary evacuation notice was issued for their neighborhood. In retrospect, he told AP, he wished they had.
The mud flow burst into their home and sent a boulder plowing through the kitchen door. Thankfully, Farrell and his parents were able to escape.
“I would have preferred for them to leave and in hindsight we should have left,” he said. “I don’t know how I got lulled.”