On January 8th, two weeks after the containment of the Santa Barbara fire, I was outside sweeping up some of the ash and hosing down the bougainvillea bush in my tiny yard. My neighbor Karen came over with some tarps. “You may want to cover that outdoor furniture.” she said.
“Oh-right. We have a rain storm coming - finally!” I remember saying. “I wish it came three weeks ago!” I said.
“It’s supposed to be really bad.” She said.
I remember thinking what an odd statement that was. After all the fire - it would be nice to finally have some rain. My dog Romio’s once white coat was now a permanent dingy grey. No amount of washing seemed to get him clean and my lungs were still killing me from the residual ash.
“It’s really not a good thing for such a heavy rain to come after a fire.” She said.
“Why?” I asked.
In New York City, we have rain - loud, pounding, howling rain and wild winds. It is not unheard of to have 3-5 inches per hour. As you walk the streets it pours from rooftops like waterfalls and will often go on and on for days on end. There’s not a New Yorker who doesn’t own a pair of rainboots and an umbrella. If you’re not prepared for the monsoon-kind-of-rainfall in the city, you’re guaranteed to spend your day with shoes full of water.
7,000 residents in the mandatory zone were told Sunday, January 7, two days before the storm hit, to leave their homes immediately. The same evacuations were ordered as were for the fire. The predicted 1 inch of rain per hour. Weather forecasters had predicted a heavy rainstorm would pound the Thomas Fire burn scar directly above Montecito. I could imagine their angst having to leave again just 4 weeks after the fire - another evacuation. Two days later, In the middle of the night on January 9th, at around 3:30 am, my dog Romio began barking and howling. I awoke to the sound of rain pounding the roof of my cottage.
“It’s just rain - go to bed.” I told him.
He never slept. He stayed up all night howling and barking. I remember thinking why is he getting so crazy - it’s no worse than the rain in New York. Little did I know as I went back to sleep, waist high mud and boulders the size of trucks became unhinged and began rolling from the high hills of Montecito straight into town, taking cars, trees, and anyone in their path. The mud continued to drag all in its way, straight toward the ocean, burying and climbing over 101 North - the main highway that carries over 100,000 trucks a year through California through the west coast of the United States. People were awoken in the middle of the night and climbed up onto their shaking rooftops, some with children, praying for their lives as they pulled neighbors, dogs and all living things up with them. No one expected a mudslide that would push all the way out to the ocean like it did. Some of the victims’ bodies were swept more than a mile from their homes.
At around 10:30 I ran into Karen as I walked on the property and she told me about the mudslide. “It’s so sad. Karen said, “I heard someone died.” We didn’t really know at the time the extent of the destruction. I turned on NPR when I got in my cottage and learned that all the roads to Montecito were shut down due to the mudslide. I thought of my friend Jan who lived in Montecito on Park Lane and called her. She didn’t pick up.