Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown addresses the media after Tuesday's deadly mudslides in Montecito (Jan. 9, 2018)
As Number of Missing Grows, Questions Arise Over County Warnings
First Emergency Cell Phone Alert Was Issued Tuesday Morning After Deadly Flooding Began
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Sheriff Bill Brown made the startling announcement Thursday afternoon that the number of people missing in the wake of Tuesday’s devastating Montecito mudslides has swelled to 43. Earlier in the day, authorities had said eight people remained unaccounted for.
Seventeen people are confirmed dead, including four children. Among the adults are a noted hand surgeon, a popular real estate executive, and a college founder. A full list of their identities is published here. All were Montecito residents.
Brown explained the 43 figure includes individuals who are actively missing, as well as those that family and friends have been unable to contact. He said that number may continue to fluctuate.
Brown also announced that the “public safety exclusion zone” that covers most of Montecito and was created to keep bystanders at bay is being upgraded to a mandatory evacuation zone. Car and pedestrian traffic has grown so heavy, he said, that search and rescue and repair efforts are being hampered. “We’re asking everyone in that area to leave,” he said, including residents. The order went into effect at 6 p.m. Thursday evening, ahead of the arrival of more than 100 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vehicles.
Areas under evacuation and at risk for flooding
The order will likely remain in effect for a week, possibly two. “We know this is a terribly inconvenient development, but it is also incredibly necessary,” Brown said. The mandatory zone is bounded by the ocean to the south; Hot Springs Road to the west; U.S. Forest Service land to the north; and along Sheffield Drive, East Valley Road, and Ladera Lane to the east. A map of the area is published here.
A boil water advisory remains in effect for the entire Montecito area. Water managers were happy to report, however, that the South Coast Conduit ― the main pipeline artery that draws water from Lake Cachuma down to Montecito and the rest of the South Coast ― is intact. Authorities previously believed it had been severely damaged in the mudslides.
Montecito Water District manager Nick Turner said water service is available at low pressure north of East Valley Road, but supplies are still cut from areas below, as crews work to repair mains and replace hydrants. Turner said it’s unknown when full service will be restored throughout district. “We are working hard, but it will take time,” he said.
Health officials closed all Santa Barbara County beaches Thursday afternoon after fecal coliform concentrations ― generated by untreated storm runoff ― were detected 60 times higher than healthy levels in ocean waters between Gaviota Beach and the south county line. Highway 101 remains shut down between the Milpas Street exit to the north and Highway 150 to the south. The closure is expected to last through the weekend and into early next week.
By Mike Eliason/ Santa Barbara Co Fire
The force of the flash flooding Tuesday morning left a crumpled Hummer H3 and a Honda at the mouth of Montecito Creek.
More than 1,500 responders are conducting preliminary inspections throughout Montecito in search of survivors. Spray-painted symbols on the sides of homes denote whether it’s been checked, where hazards exist, and if anyone alive was found inside. The same communication system was used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Once the preliminary search is done, which may wrap up Thursday evening or Friday morning, a secondary search will commence, before rescue attempts shift to recovery efforts.
Brown said there’s still hope those trapped may be found alive. “In disaster circumstances, there have been many miraculous rescues of people who had survived for days,” he said. “We’re searching for a miracle now.”
As Santa Barbara County officials remain focused on the search for survivors, questions have begun to bubble over the adequacy of warning notices issued to Montecito residents ahead of Tuesday’s deadly storm, and whether residents were properly notified as soon as disaster struck.
The Los Angeles Times reported this Wednesday that the emergency alert issued by Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to the cell phones of registered Montecito residents was not broadcast until 3:52 a.m. Tuesday, after the foothills began letting loose violent debris flows that tossed boulders and cars and ripped entire homes from their foundations. The alert came 1 hour and 20 minutes after the National Weather Service (NWS) issued its own cell phone warning of imminent flash flooding in the Montecito area. Eyewitness accounts vary, but some put the start of the mudslides between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 2:32 a.m. Tuesday, over a full hour before the Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management broadcast its first alert
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s disaster, county officials issued numerous warnings about the impending rainstorm and its likely ability to trigger significant flash flooding throughout areas destabilized by the Thomas Fire. At a press conference the Friday before, County Supervisor Das Williams described the “very clear and present danger” ahead, and OEM director Robert Lewin described how the fire had compromised 17 major canyons across Montecito and Carpinteria.
Lewin identified “four critical areas” vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides: within the burn scar, immediately outside its perimeter, creekside properties, and lowlands with histories of flooding. He also encouraged residents to visit an interactive map on the county’s website that pinpointed homes in dangerous areas and strongly suggested residents sign up for the county’s emergency warning system, awareandprepare.org.
By Sunday, meteorologists had dramatically increased their rainfall predictions, and all of Montecito was placed either under mandatory evacuation orders or voluntary evacuation advisories. Approximately 7,000 residents lived in the mandatory zone, and another 23,000 in the voluntary area. The county made its notifications through its website, on social media, with local news outlets, and via informational emails. Over 200,000 emails and other warnings were reportedly sent out.
Neighbors placed a green tarp and cross over the remains of a woman killed by the flash floods. As of Thursday evening, she was one of 17 whose bodies had been recovered.