Deadly mudslides in Southern California are more proof that natural disasters don’t differentiate between the poor and the wealthy. Heavy rains soaked the hillsides of Santa Clara County on January 9th and caused major devastation in the upscale community of Montecito. 17 people were confirmed dead by the next day with 28 injured and 23 missing. Hundreds of others remained trapped in their homes, waiting for rescue.
The mud came crashing down just weeks after the Thomas fire burned its way through the area and denuded hillsides. Without trees and brush to help soak up the water, and roots to help hold soil against steep hillsides, it didn’t take much rain to send a torrent of mud and rocks through Montecito’s Romero Canyon. Montecito is just south of Santa Barbara.
It happened at 2:30am, when people were sleeping. One man told the LA Times, “It was like a bomb went off.” He said, “It wasn’t raining hard, and then it was like you flipped a switch.” (1)
The mud slammed into homes, tearing some from their foundations, and sending them bobbing on mud currents for a half mile before they broke apart. Some say the area looks like a war zone or the aftermath of an apocalypse.
The Times reported, people were out before dawn, looking for missing loved ones with “tears in their eyes.” Thousands of people were told to evacuate but some stayed behind, and many are now trapped in their homes and neighborhoods because the mud has blocked roads. A 30-mile section of route 101 looked like a mud river and was shut down.
People stuck in Romero Canyon are being airlifted to safety. The slide also destroyed vital infrastructure so homes left standing are without gas, electricity, or water. The Times reported, an estimated 100 homes were destroyed and another 300 were damaged. Eight businesses were also destroyed.
Multiple Factors Created Mudslide Risk
Mudslide risk rises tremendously after a wildfire. Santa Barbara’s deputy director of public works, Tom Fayram, told CNN, the hills are usually covered with chaparral but the Thomas Fire destroyed most of it. He said, “It’s almost 100% gone.”
And it doesn’t take much rain to turn hillsides into rivers of mud. Robbie Monroe, of the National Weather Service, said in the Times article, “About a half an inch per hour can start to produce issues, mudslides.” And, this latest rainstorm dumped more than 5 inches of rain on the area in a matter of hours.
Elevation is also an issue in Montecito. It goes from 3,000 feet to sea level in just four or five miles. That means there are many steep inclines that help increase the likelihood and the speed of a mudslide. Some of the residents say it happened in an instant, like a dam breaking.
Montecito also sits on a layer of rock. As I mentioned, when there’s no vegetation to hold the soil in place or to soak up the water, the soil gets wet, slides off the rock, and down the hill. One resident, Dave Peterson, described it as a “treacherous situation.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has helped with the rescue effort, plucking people off rooftops. CNN reported that a couple and their three children in Carpinteria were among those seeking refuge on their roofs while helicopters airlifted them to solid ground (2).
The Thomas Fire began on December 4th and is technically still burning, but Cal Fire says it’s 92% contained. Total damage stands at 281,000 acres burned in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, 1,063 homes and other buildings destroyed, and another 280 homes and buildings damaged.
Firefighter Cory Iverson was killed in the Thomas fire from burns and smoke inhalation. The other human casualties appear to the result of the mudslide, that came after the fire.
Protecting yourself against this kind of mudslide may be impossible, but when a mudslide is imminent, you should evacuate until the risk is over. You can also help prevent dangerous mudslide conditions by doing what you can to prevent wildfires, although the intensity and severity of recent California wildfires has been a surprise to the experts.
They say, fires that spread through Southern California were the result of dry weather and Santa Ana winds that blew in from the desert. High temperatures also contributed to fire-perfect conditions and the rapid spread of the flames. There’s also the issue of climate change that may be contributing to a more ferocious and lengthier fire season.
Scientists are predicting a surge in wildfires over the next few decades due to climate change. As reported by Time Magazine, a 2006 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests that global warming could also shift the trajectory of Santa Ana winds, potentially creating a larger fire risk area.
Mudslides Targets Celebrity Homes
Among the celebrities affected by the mudslide, talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, actor, Rob Lowe, and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres. Oprah was not injured and did not lose her Montecito home but she posted photos of deep mud in her yard, and helicopters flying overhead to rescue people nearby.
Lowe and Degeneres are also okay. Lowe said on Twitter that he’s “praying for survivors and preparing for whatever may come.” DeGeneres shared a photo of the 101 freeway saying, “This is not a river. This is the 101 freeway in my neighborhood right now. Montecito needs your love and support.”
Fox news reported, at least 21,000 people have been evacuated because of the mudslides. Maybe the best we can do for them, is to keep all them in our thoughts, and pray for the best.
(1) LA Times Article
(2) CNN Article