On Saturday evening at about five, a woman walked into Vons in Montecito and gasped with gratitude when she saw the store manager. They hugged, and the manager said, “I’ve been thinking about you.”
The exchange has been increasingly common among regular customers and the employees at the supermarket since last Tuesday’s nightmarish storm that killed at least 19 people. Employees described the Vons as usually one of the busiest grocery stores in the area. But on Saturday evening, there was just one checker. Most in line were firefighters and rescuers staged in the parking lot. One fire captain approached the manager to ask for chicken for his crew. The manager, who said she always tried to remain strong in front of customers, appeared truly bummed. “We don’t have gas,” she said. It was cold in there.
In the last week, Vons in Montecito has transformed to a sanctuary for a community overwhelmed with sudden, horrific loss. Cardboard flats of plastic water bottles stacked high are out front for people to take for free. When Red Cross volunteers came inside asking for more coffee, the manager grabbed water bottles to make it herself, as the area remained under a boil water mandate. And after all, no one was working in the bakery. Most of her employees lived in Carpinteria or Ventura and could not make it in as the highway was filled with watery guck that one CHP official described as having a peanut butter consistency.
Vons has been a haven, in particular, for two employees devastated by the storm. One employee, Perm, who chops fresh produce during the night shift, happened to be at the store very early on January 9 when the rain came. Her daughter-in-law, Yuphawan, who goes by Aw, also works at the market in the early morning.
While torrential rain propelling boulders and mud obliterated their home on East Valley Road, Perm and Aw were at work. They escaped the decimation. Their family members who were at home sleeping, however, were found dead or are still missing.
Pinit “Oom” Sutthithepa, Aw’s husband and Perm’s son, was found dead on Saturday. Their 6-year-old Peerawat, who goes by Pasta, was killed. His body was reportedly found by the train tracks. Perm’s husband, 79-year-old Richard “Loring” Taylor was also killed. Their 2-year-old, Lydia, is still missing.
Another live-in family member, Sirithorn Janthorntho, who goes by May, got caught in the storm but managed to survive. She was pulled from mud by Montectio firefighters on Tuesday about two hours after the rain started, according to Mike Caldwell, Oom’s boss at Toyota, who set up a GoFundMe webpage for the family. As of Saturday night, $86,850 had been raised.
The family was originally from Khon Kaen in Thailand. Oom immigrated to the United States by himself a number of years ago and worked as a truck driver, according to the Santa Maria Times. He later got the job at Toyota. For years, he sent money to Aw and the kids, and in summer 2016, they also immigrated to the United States. It is unclear how long Perm and Loring have lived in Montecito. The family owned two houses on East Valley Road, coworkers said, and they rented one out to another family that was also attacked by the storm.
Perm, who has worked at Vons for many years, had just returned to her job after undergoing chemotherapy, her coworkers said. Oom’s employer, Toyota Santa Barbara, has paid for a hotel room for Perm and Aw, and Caldwell has been in close contact with them. Parm and Aw stopped in at the Vons every day last week, coworkers said.
On Saturday, after Oom’s body was found, they were allowed back to the site of the destruction on East Valley Road, where they held a Buddhist ceremony. On Sunday, Perm and Aw stood on the steps at the vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
Where their East Valley Road home once stood now looks like a muddy junkyard. The houses on the street were concealed by stone walls and tall hedges just a week ago. Now, much of the land is empty, save for toppled tree branches caked in mud and debris. What was a pool is sectioned off with pink tape. It was only discovered after a firefighter reportedly stepped on top of the gooey surface and fell in. Nearby, a single wooden swing hangs from a tree. A small bright pink jacket caught on a broken tree branch dangles as a symbol of the at least four children slaughtered by the storm.
The Independent will post stories about each of the victims killed.