Urgent alerts about deadly mudslides came too late for Montecito victims

The San Diego Union-Tribune Incident 6 months ago

Josie Gower woke up to the sound of rain hammering the roof of her Montecito home around 3 a.m. Tuesday. She walked downstairs, where her boyfriend had been keeping an eye on the storm, and together they opened to door to look outside.

A wall of mud and boulders as big as pickup trucks crashed toward Gower’s house, sweeping the couple out the front door. Gower, 69, clung to the door frame. Her boyfriend reached for her hand. Neither could hold on.

Her boyfriend, Norm, was pinned against a fence, buried in mud up to his neck. She was swept away and died.

“He was in the mud calling her name for hours,” said Alastair Haigh, Gower’s 37-year-old son-in-law.

Alerts came too late

By the time tons of mud and debris started flowing down fire-scorched hillsides and into Montecito neighborhoods early Tuesday, it was too late for most residents still inside their homes, and there was no way to escape.

Officials had been warning for days that heavy storms could produce strong mudflows.

But when the rains moved in and the storm proved much worse than forecasters predicted, emergency agencies struggled to get the word out to residents on their cellphones about the urgent danger.

Just after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service sent a cellphone push alert for people near the fresh Thomas fire burn scar: flash flood warning.

But in the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, where workers were waiting for the predicted deluge, only a few people’s phones buzzed with the alert. Others got nothing.

Robert Lewin, director of the emergency management office, knew that couldn’t be good.

“I said, ‘Uh oh, what’s going on?’ ” Lewin said.

The county followed up with its own flash flood push alert at 2:46 a.m. — but only for residents who had proactively signed up for official notices or were actively monitoring social media.

It wasn’t until 3:50 a.m. Tuesday that Santa Barbara County officials sent an alert through a federal wireless system that buzzes every cellphone within range of a working tower, similar to an Amber Alert.

But by then, the deadly debris flow had already begun. At least 17 people died — several, like Gower, in areas not under mandatory evacuation orders — and more than 100 homes were obliterated.

Disaster fatigue

Many questions remain about what could have been done to keep people out of harm’s way. But several factors combined to create problems: issues with the warning systems, the unwillingness of some residents to evacuate for a second time after the Thomas fire, and a deluge that defied expectations.

Jeff Gater, the county’s emergency manager, said that more than 200,000 text messages, emails and other warnings were sent out to people who subscribed to such messages but that officials decided not to use the cellphone push alert system out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

“If you cry wolf, people stop listening,” he said.

Lewin criticized the federal wireless emergency alert system, saying it “is broken.” The alerts appear to have not reached phones on the Verizon network, he said.

Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokesperson, said storm-related power outages were causing service interruptions in parts of Montecito. Spokespeople for T-Mobile and Sprint said they had minimal disruptions.

Robert Villegas, a spokesman for Southern California Edison Co., said that power poles and telephone lines suffered extensive damage but that crews were positioned in the area well ahead of time because they knew the storm would be bad.

Five days before the storm, forecasters began notifying emergency managers, the media and the public about the approaching system, which was predicted to pound the Thomas fire burn area.

After the Thomas fire, the U.S. Geological Survey studied the burn area to determine its vulnerability for flash floods, mudslides and debris flows. The agency found that a rainfall rate of half an inch per hour would trigger debris flows, officials said.

Too much rain

On Tuesday morning, the storm far exceeded that threshold when it dumped 0.54 of an inch of rain on Montecito within five minutes, said Robert Munroe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Munroe said such an extreme rainfall rate is usually seen once every 200 years.

The day before the storm hit Montecito, about 60 Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies and search and rescue workers spent hours roving the community’s foothill neighborhoods, trying to persuade people living in the shadow of scorched mountains to leave.

County officials also issued mandatory evacuation orders for about 7,000 people living north of Highway 192 in areas closer to where the Thomas fire had burned. Voluntary orders were issued for 23,000 others as the storm approached. Residents in those areas were not visited by sheriff’s deputies, officials said.

Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director, said that whether the county issues mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, they should be taken seriously.

“Voluntary evacuation doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem,” he said. “If we felt they did not have a problem, we would not have issued a warning at all.”

Some of the hardest-hit areas were in the voluntary evacuation zone south of Highway 192, and it’s clear many residents there stayed in their homes.

A town prone to disaster

The upscale town — home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey — is situated between the Pacific Ocean and Los Padres National Forest. The Montecito Fire Protection District’s wildfire protection plan, released in February 2016, notes that the town’s semirural character — its narrow and steep roads, addresses not clearly visible from the street, and unlit roads and intersections — pose problems for emergency responders and evacuating residents.

The town has “an extensive history” of wildfires and threats of post-fire floods, and emergency responders often issue evacuation orders in the area, the report says.

“Some residents believe a secondary evacuation order will be issued prior to conditions becoming truly life threatening,” the report says.

In the wake of mudslides, some question why the mandatory evacuation zone — and the door-to-door visits — were not more widespread.

Gower’s family isn’t sure why her house on East Valley Road was not under a mandatory evacuation order.

“She lived next to a creek,” Haigh, her son-in-law, said. “You’d think they would make those people evacuate no matter what. It must be hard for them to predict what’s going to happen, but it does seem like there’s been a huge mistake.”

Jen Guilbeault said she decided to stay in her home on Ortega Ridge Road because it, too, was in a voluntary evacuation zone.

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