Mudslides devastate Montecito, California
Monday, January 15, 2018
After a deluge of rain was forecasted following containment of the Thomas Fire — the largest fire in California history — the prediction of mudslides was a bit much for Santa Barbara County residents. Now, the affluent town of Montecito, population 10,000, has reported 20 dead, with the death count expected to rise as recovery workers wade slowly and cautiously through new mud terrain.
Last week, residents of Montecito, which is 85 miles Northwest of Los Angeles, were rallying ahead of the forecasted rain, filling sandbags to block mud and debris flow from the hills. Since then, news has been less about residents prevailing against the tide of mud, and much more about how overwhelming, and even apocalyptic, the mudslides and their aftermath are in Santa Barbara County areas.
Photos from last week show Montecito under attack. 72 homes and 30 commercial properties were destroyed, and another 462 structures sustained damage. There are still people missing, and the death toll is expected to rise. Officials have moved on from a "search and rescue mission" to a "search and recovery effort" since those missing people are not expected to be found alive in the mud-drenched area.
To make matters worse, residents of Montecito, especially the southeastern corner, have been asked to relocate for the next two weeks in case there's more rain. But the town's lifeline, the scenic Highway 101, is indefinitely closed for a 10-mile stretch, making relocation much more difficult. Parts of the highway are under around 7 feet of water and mud, and officials are not sure when this will be cleared up. No timeline is the new normal there.
In the meantime, the 70,000 vehicles per day — trucks, commuter cars and emergency vehicles — that use Highway 101 through Montecito need to find alternative routes. The Amtrak Surfliner train service has added cars, and ferries are available as an alternative to a five-hour (250-mile) road detour.
In anticipation of more rain, officials are now trying to clear the debris basins that are sprinkled throughout the Santa Barbara County hills. These basins function well in usual rain conditions, but could not hold up in the face of the Thomas Fire's assault on uphill vegetation and the downpour that followed.
While some people play the blame game, wondering why more couldn't have been done to avoid this catastrophe, others face a much more practical concern. What is to be done with all the mud?
The Los Angeles Times summarizes the situation well: "The disaster leaves Montecito with a cleanup that is hard to fathom, and with no timetable for completion. Many streets have limited access because of the mud. Bridges are washed out. Power and gas are shut off for thousands. And when the water does come out of faucets, it's not drinkable."
As the mud begins to dry, it will be easier to move. However, where should tons and tons of mud, which contains debris like cars, rocks, refrigerators, furniture and tree trunks, be moved to? For now, dump trucks are reported to be dumping mud, free of extraneous debris materials, off at a spot in nearby Summerland, and at Goleta and Carpinteria beaches. But this is a short-lived and troubling solution, as beautiful beaches remain one of the area's greatest natural assets.
Some people are questioning how prudent this decision is considering that mud pumped from Montecito's portion of the 101 freeway is full of "oil byproducts, ash from the fire and clay sediment that has cement-like qualities not compatible with marine life" — violating water quality standards.
Meanwhile, this mud disaster presents a unique recovery challenge for the 2,000 crew members in the Montecito streets: "Search teams can't use chainsaws or cutters if ruptured gas lines are leaking. Sanitation crews can't operate pumps without electricity. And no rescuer can reach the wreckage if streets are blocked."
Six sections of Montecito's main water line have been knocked out. Those with water access need to boil it. Gas leaks are the norm, with 3,600 customers without Southern California Gas Company service.
While "disaster fatigue" is definitely a widespread condition in an area that has seen its share of recent trauma, thousands attended a candlelight vigil for the mudslide victims in front of the Santa Barbara County courthouse Sunday night. This event tells us that locals have not given up in the face of these unthinkable intertwined natural disasters.
Weather permitting, residents strive to get back to normal as soon as possible — if that's possible. Potential rain is included in the Santa Barbara County forecast for this upcoming weekend.
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