Jason Copus (left) and Mark Olson help Steve Wrolstae through thick mud on Coast Village Road (Jan. 9, 2018).
Paul Wellman

In the midst of all the tragedy, stories of miracles emerged through the deluge. The Santa Barbara Independent is gathering personal accounts from people affected by the storm. If you have a story to share, please call (805) 965-5205 or email news@independent.com.

Alicia Lahti was on the second floor of her condo near the intersection of Olive Mill Road and Coast Village Drive when the heavy rain and wind woke her up. Her two mid-sized goldendoodles, Belle and Amore, started barking frantically. “They knew something was wrong,” Lahti remembered. “I got up and looked down the stairs and the furniture was moving around and I could hear the mud coming inside.” She called 9-1-1, but soon, “I realized I was on my own,” she said

She got dressed, pulled on her boots, and put her phone, driver’s license, and a credit card inside a waterproof bag, and walked downstairs. The mud was up to her waist, and her leashed dogs started swimming. They trudged to the front door, half smashed in by a large tree branch. She wrenched it open, waded through the mud-filled courtyard and a gate to the street, where she found a small patch of high ground surrounded by boulders and tree trunks. She started waving her phone light and screaming for help in the pouring rain. “The eeriest thing was the mud creeping down Olive Mill,” she remembered.

Thirty minutes later, a man named Mark Olson showed up out of the blackness. He helped her and the dogs climb over the boulders and tree trunks and led them along the edge of the street to nearby Virginia Road to a home that wasn’t flooded. “I don’t know whose house that was,” she said. “Mark gave me a coat and some towels. He was so kind.” Another man came and led me to Loryn Hodosy’s house. Loryn and her husband let me take a shower and gave me clean clothes. They fed my dogs and brought me a bagel and some milk.”

Lahti and her dogs stayed there until around 1:30 that afternoon, when Loryn drove them to All Saint’s, where they were evacuated to Vons and then to SBCC. She rented a car and got to a motel room in Goleta.

“I need to acknowledge the people who helped me,” she said, crying. “Mark Olson saved me. Loryn and her husband and another man really helped me. I’m so grateful.”

Jonathan Blinderman, whose house is near Olive Mill and Hot Springs roads, heard a man yelling in his backyard early Tuesday morning. The man screamed, “Help me! Help me! I am hurt,” Blinderman recalled. He looked like he had just been swept down the road, Blinderman said. He told his kids to call 9-1-1. Dispatchers told them no one was coming anytime soon. Blinderman told the man to try to grab the tree. “We’re going to get someone out there to help you,” he told him, shouting at the man, whom he could not recognize for nearly an hour. He encouraged him from afar. Eventually, he said, the man was able to muscle his way through the mud. He was completely; his ribs were broken. “That guy is tough,” he said. Firefighters arrived and transported him to the hospital. Blinderman said he did not know anything about his current condition.

Blinderman said he was later picked up by the Tognotti family. The Tognottis spent that morning ferrying people to safety. “The response of this community has been phenomenal,” Blinderman said.

Ralph Barajas, who owns Rose Café on the Mesa, was with his partner, Peter Fleurat, in their house on Hot Springs Road when they awoke early Tuesday morning to sounds of boulders rumbling, according to his niece, Angelique Marie. “As soon as they went to the front door, the mud buckled the house and took them out,” she said. Barajas found himself pushed up against a tree trunk, stuck in place by several feet of mud. When the pressure subsided, he managed to slog through the debris. Along the way he came across an injured woman caught in the mud. He pulled her up, and the two were rescued by medics nearby, Marie explained. Barajas suffered cuts all over his body and sprained his neck. He does not know what happened to his partner. As of Wednesday, Fleurat is missing. The entire house was wiped out. The Santa Barbara News-Press erroneously reported that Barajas was killed in the mudslide. On Wednesday, Marie said, longtime customers and friends who thought he was dead showed up to the Rose Café with flowers to pay their condolences. They are contacting the paper for a retraction, she said.

Editor’s Note: Peter Fleurat was identified as dead by the Coroner’s Office on January 11.

Twenty-three-year-old Connor McManigal was swept from the 300 block of Hot Springs Road all the way down to Highway 101. His clothes were ripped from his body. Half of his body was covered in abrasions, but he is expected to survive. He was in the voluntary evacuation zone.

Nearby on Hot Springs Road, Billy Grokenberger, 27, was with his mom, Trina; dad, David; and dog, Molly, when the storm came. Water slammed the side of the house, filling to the top of the front doorway. The family climbed to the second story and watched an overturned SUV slam into their cars parked in the driveway. “We watched the cars go in a matter of minutes,” he said. Minutes later, the rain subsided, and the family walked outside, using a flashlight to signal to firefighters. Their neighbor’s house was totally gone. They got a ride to a friend’s house in the fire truck.

Ben Ciccati, art director at the Santa Barbara Independent, said he walked around his neighborhood on Jameson Lane on Tuesday morning at about 3:30 a.m. with a flashlight to make sure no one was wedged in their cars. “I saw the fire in the sky, and I thought the world was ending,” he said. Maimed cars floated by. He saw a woman in her forties stuck in a tree. Firefighters used a ladder to pull her out. “She was okay,” he said. One older woman nearby on Tiburon and Jacaranda, however, did not make it.

Dick Thielscher, a Montecito resident, said he was standing at the overpass near Montecito Inn on Tuesday at about 1 p.m. when he saw helicopter personnel recover by hoist a man who had been trapped in a car for about 10 hours. Rescuers had used heat sensors to hover over cars to see if anyone stuck inside. “It was really quite a rescue,” he said, “just like the movies.” Now, Thielscher is stuck at home without power. His cell phone was running on low battery. “The hardest thing for people right now might be that they are not allowed to evacuate.” He is going to try to get out today. Before hanging up, he said the silver lining is that there are a lot of neighbors helping neighbors. “The community really does rally.”

Berkeley “Augie” Johnson trudged through several feet of debris with firefighters to locate a 2-year-old year girl caked in mud. She was transported to the hospital and is expected to survive. Read more here.

This story will continue to be updated in coming days.


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