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‘It was not sufficient’: California officials reevaluate evacuations after deadly mudslides

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Senior Deputy Dennis Thomas leads Dina Landi on Friday through the home where she was staying when a mudslide barreled through in the early morning of Jan. 9. (Dania Maxwell/FTWP)

MONTECITO, Calif. — When the final mandatory evacuation order lifted after mudslides struck this coastal hillside neighborhood, Dina Landi returned to her home this week anticipating the damage she might find.

Three weeks earlier, she and her partner had fled to a friend's guesthouse about a mile away, assuming that the voluntary evacuation zone would be safer.

But in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, after they opened the door to check out the rainstorm raging outside, the structure flooded three or four feet deep in seconds, Landi said, forcing the couple to climb onto the guesthouse roof with their 70-pound dog. In the main house, their friend Rebecca Riskin and her husband had been swept away by the mudflow, killing Riskin.

It seemed inevitable that Landi's house had suffered a similar fate in the mudslides, which destroyed or damaged more than 500 homes. But when she returned, the house was untouched.

"You go through something like this, and you lose somebody — and I don't mean to sound ungrateful, because I'm really grateful that our house is okay — but you almost don't care," she said.

After suffering back-to-back natural disasters, local officials are rethinking how they warn residents about impending threats and designate evacuation zones.

Before and after photos of the mudslides in Montecito

Much of Montecito was evacuated in mid-December when the extensive Thomas Fire blazed on the mountainsides that border the area. The flames left swaths of barren land in their wake, clearing the way for the rain-soaked soil to cascade down toward homes in the foothills.

In the days before the storm struck, Santa Barbara County officials declared a local emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order for part of Montecito. But only a voluntary evacuation warning was issued for areas between East Valley Road and the Pacific Ocean, farther away from the hillsides.

"Be prepared to leave immediately at your own discretion if the situation worsens," the county's notification stated.

County Sheriff Bill Brown said that, in retrospect, the areas officials designated as voluntary evacuation zones were no safer than mandatory ones.

"Obviously, in hindsight, it was not sufficient," Brown said of the evacuation order. "Had we known what we now know, we would have evacuated the entire area."

Landi wasn't alone in her belief that the voluntary evacuation zone was safer.

While many people in both the voluntary and mandatory evacuation zones left the areas, enough stayed to make the mudslides the deadliest disasters in Santa Barbara County's history, Brown said.

Twenty-one people are confirmed to have died in the mudslides, and two are still missing. People died in both mandatory and voluntary evacuation zones.

"The problem is, sometimes the focus is on the word 'voluntary,' rather than the word 'evacuation,' " he said. "The reality is, it's still an evacuation area."

County authorities believe "evacuation fatigue" might have led some to stay home during the storms. Everyone asked to leave their homes in anticipation of the Montecito mudslides had been asked to evacuate at least once in December to escape the Thomas Fire, the biggest wildfire in California's recorded history.

Brown said he also thinks some Montecito residents fell back on their habits for a fire evacuation: Pack a "go bag" and wait to see how close the flames get.

But a mudslide is not a wildfire. It can't be seen and smelled from miles away.

"We are accustomed, very much so, to fires in Santa Barbara County," Brown said. "Here, since we haven't had major flooding for decades, very few people have firsthand knowledge to understand that danger."

Emotional residents return to California mudslide area

Anticipating the rainstorm, a team of county, state and federal experts had drawn up maps that predicted fairly accurately where the water would fall and the mud would flow, Brown said. The sheriff's department based its evacuation orders on those maps.

The mandatory evacuation zone stopped at East Valley Road — just south of where Landi lives — because that's as far as experts expected the heavy mud and debris to flow down from the hills.

However, the downpour was heavier than forecast — as much as half an inch of rain in about five minutes — and the resulting slide was worse than the experts' worst-case scenario, Brown said. The areas under voluntary evacuation were hit just as hard as those in the mandatory evacuation zone — in some cases worse — and the mud and debris flowed all the way to the ocean.

No one wants to trigger widespread panic every time it rains, he added, but the standard procedures used in Montecito did not communicate the true danger to enough residents.

The evacuation orders, both mandatory and voluntary, were covered extensively in the local media for days before the storm hit. On the day the rain started, sheriff's deputies and other emergency workers went door to door in the mandatory evacuation zones.

"The message was getting to people, but I don't know if it was resonating with people," Brown said. "There is no doubt that we are going to have to take a look at all of our protocols, at how we notify people and alert people, and I suspect what will come out of this is some new protocol, not only for our county but for our entire state."

Landi and her partner, Geoff Gray, had heard the county's warnings in the days before the storm, but even as their cellphones blared in the early morning hours, they simply checked the flash-flood alerts and went back to sleep. Being in a voluntary evacuation zone conveyed a sense of security.

It wasn't until about 3:30 a.m., when they woke to torrential rain, that they opened the door to investigate — allowing a rush of water into the guesthouse.

As they were waiting for rescuers on the roof, Landi and Gray heard Riskin's husband, Ken Grand, yell out their names.

"He tells us, 'My leg is broken, and it's really, really cold,' " Landi recalled. She called 911 for a second time, realizing Grand had been swept from the house and was possibly experiencing hypothermia.

The rescue helicopter came not long after sunrise. Landi and Grand got in, while Gray, Riskin's adult daughter and the dog were picked up by another helicopter. The next day, Landi and Gray were in the hospital with Grand when they learned that Riskin, a real estate agent, had been killed in the mudslides.

"She was a very strong businesswoman, and she was also the most compassionate, caring and kind person I've ever met," Landi said. "She treated her gardener and housekeeper the same as she'd treat one of her billionaire clients. She treated the person she bought coffee from the same as someone buying a $15 million estate from her."

Landi said she has other friends in Montecito who evacuated the way she did, going from a mandatory evacuation area to a voluntary one.

"There were so many of us that felt going to the voluntary evacuation zone was safer," she said. "I don't know if some of that was because we were so desensitized from the Thomas Fire evacuations that we thought a voluntary evacuation meant we'd have more time if something happened."