Spiritual Reflections on the Debris Flow

On the Fifth Anniversary of the Thomas Fire and Its Aftermath, La Casa de Maria’s Former Director Offers Some Valuable Lessons to the Community

Abe Powell gives an orientation to members of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade early in the recovery process. | Credit: Steve Jacobsen

Shortly after 3 a.m. on January 9, 2018, an intense downpour fell on the foothills above Montecito, where just a month before, the Thomas Fire had incinerated the native vegetation, creating a geological force most of us had never witnessed: a “debris flow.”

Defined as “a fast-moving mass of material — slurries of water, rock, soil, vegetation, and even boulders and trees — that moves downhill by sliding, flowing and/or falling,” that debris flow would soon become a defining tragedy for our community.

In the hours following the rain burst, the debris flow grew as high as 15 feet as it surged down the canyons at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. It consumed everything in its path. Huge sandstone boulders were swept along like ping-pong balls. It uprooted dozens of oak trees and obliterated buildings. The fast-moving wall of mud and debris became a liquid battering ram as it headed toward the sea.

It happened in the darkness of night, so there is hardly any video record of what it looked like. It wasn’t until morning that the extent of the destruction began to be understood.

As it turned out, 23 people died, two were never accounted for, and 163 were hospitalized; more than 100 homes were destroyed and more than 300 were damaged; and Highway 101 was closed for two weeks.

The labyrinth at La Casa De Maria remained untouched by the debris flow, “which is symbolic of the process we go through in grief, recovery, and discovery,” said Steve Jacobsen. | Credit: Steve Jacobsen

I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center at the time. La Casa is on a 26-acre parcel adjacent to San Ysidro Creek and was in the direct path of the debris flow. Fourteen acres of our historic property were wiped clean by the flow. Nine buildings disappeared, including the two-story administration building that had been designed to withstand floods and earthquakes. Crushed oak trees were everywhere.

The flow propelled a large boulder through the wall of the historic chapel, filling it with mud and broken furniture. The crucifix, calm and still as it overlooked the scene, was untouched; photos of it went viral. For many people, the chapel scene became an image of both tragic destruction and transcendence amid suffering.

It quickly became clear that we would not be able to operate again. Our staff of 45 was cut by two-thirds as we began to assess our future. More layoffs soon followed. Eventually, a decision was made to completely shut the facility down until a later date. I retired that summer.

In the weeks after the event, I walked the property, trying to fathom all that had happened. I looked for lessons I could draw from this experience. I came up with four.


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Embrace Environmental Humility

Modern industrial culture has assumed it can do whatever it pleases, “taming” nature if nature gets in the way. We build homes wherever we want, consume natural resources as quickly as we please, and assume we’ll find technological fixes for any problem. This arrogance is no longer viable. We must return to a state of mind where we revere and respect the natural forces and ecosystems we are part of and live our lives accordingly.

Invest in Friendships and Community

Whether it’s floods, wildfires, or COVID, one of the keys to survival is support found from friends, family, neighbors, and communities. Hundreds of people sent messages of concern and pledges of support to La Casa — never had we realized how much the property meant to so many. The “Bucket Brigade” rose out of the chaos to become both a symbol and a force for resilience and renewal; it played a critical role in removing mud and debris across our campus, including vital work to save the magnificent oaks. As David Brooks has said, our fragmented digital life shapes us into isolated individuals, but we can resist that trend; instead, we can “overinvest in friendships.” In frightening and challenging times, it’s other people we need. Treasure your friends and neighbors every day.

Welcome Moments of Connectivity

As a pastor and former Director of Hospice of Santa Barbara, I have witnessed the ways people face mortality many times. If people have time to reflect, they often go deep within themselves and discover what really matters in life. This frequently becomes a spiritual quest. When people do clarify their deepest beliefs and values, they often experience a sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for both nature and other people. Sitting alone outside in the afternoon, a slight breeze passes, and it feels like a sign of grace. The person who comes to our door to help can seem like an angel. What is true for our individual experiences is also true when we face disasters. When we find our spiritual core, we begin to recognize other people, including strangers, as members of our human family.

Be Determined to Claim Your Integrity

Several years ago, I read a piece by a Navy SEAL who helped other vets get through PTSD experiences. He believed we have an option when we face hardship. Do we ask, “How will this affect me?” and passively let circumstances determine who we become? Or do we say, “Facing these challenges, how can I respond in a way that will help me become the person I want to be?” After the debris flow, all of us who loved and served La Casa became determined to see it rebuilt and reopened because we knew how valuable it is. I am now part of a group that is working to make that happen. We hope La Casa will emerge stronger than ever after enduring so much and look forward to sharing our plans when the time is right.

Embracing environmental humility, investing in friendships and community, welcoming moments of connectivity, and having the determination to claim our integrity — these are the lessons I learned from the Montecito debris flow.

We are well into the climate change era, regularly facing wildfires, floods, and disasters of all kinds, including the COVID pandemic. I believe these four lessons can help us find our way. I look forward to a reawakened La Casa de Maria that will host individuals, families, and groups to engage in these lessons.


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