Tuesday’s storm fell short of expectations and as a result the evacuation orders issued by county officials were lifted eight hours after they took effect.
Initial projections by weather officials showed 2 to 4 inches dumping on the South Coast, however most portions of the county registered less than 2 inches of rain throughout the day.
“It was still wet, but the amounts we were expecting were pretty extreme and tough to ignore,” said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Those who were asked to leave their homes by 10 a.m. Tuesday may have encountered authorities on their way out.
About 70 law enforcement personnel, including Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies and district attorney investigators, along with special enforcement and search-and-rescue team members fanned out across the mandatory evacuation zone early Tuesday, knocking on doors to make sure people got the word to get out.
“Most people are leaving or they’re already gone,” Deputy Brice Bruening told the News-Press during a detail on Danielson Road in Montecito. “A couple people want to stay behind, so we’re collecting their information so that we can contact them if we need to later.”
In what was the first weather-related evacuation order since March 2018, the Sheriff’s Office issued the notice Monday night for areas previously identified as at-risk for debris flow events near the Sherpa, Whittier and Thomas fire burn areas.
Among the homes tagged with the familiar orange evacuation notice was one damaged in the flooding and debris flow a year ago, orange and yellow spray-paint telling the stories of two rescue task forces that searched the structure in the wake of last year’s flooding and debris flow.
“This street was hit pretty hard,” said Deputy Bruening, explaining the meaning behind the markings.
“We’re still seeing the scars,” Deputy Bruening added. “You can still see where the mud was from last year, a reminder to everyone to take these (evacuations) seriously and please leave.”
The deadly flooding on Jan. 9, 2018, left 23 people dead, including two who have yet to be found. The risk of the debris flow is a result of the Thomas Fire, which broke out Dec. 4, 2017, in Santa Paula. At one point the largest fire in state history, having charred 281,893 acres, the blaze burned the hills above Montecito and Carpinteria and has left the area susceptible for debris flows for the next several years.
Also knocking on doors were teams from the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, handing out emergency radios to people who decided to stay home instead of evacuate.
The giveaway was a first for the organization’s Santa Barbara chapter, said volunteer Mary Jo Swalley.
“These are hand-crank radios that also have a charging for cell phone, etc., so that people who decide to stay will have a way to communicate even if they lose power,” she said.
Ms. Swalley said there were 200 radios to go around for the 1,500 or so addresses on their list. A lot of those, however, had already evacuated, she said.
“We’re trying to reach people who might still be present.”
About 15 percent of residents who live in the evacuated areas chose to stay and did not evacuate when contacted Tuesday. More than 50 percent of those residents were not home and were suspected to have already evacuated. Almost 30 percent of residents contacted Tuesday left their home, Kelly Hoover, sheriff’s spokeswoman, told the News-Press.
A dozen animals, eight dogs and four cats, were being boarded Tuesday by the Santa Barbara Humane Society, according to spokeswoman Marissa Miller.
As the evacuation deadline neared, Abe Powell, president of the Montecito Fire Protection District and co-founder of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit created in the wake of the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides “to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and community crises through volunteer training, coordination and deployment,” told the News-Press residents were heeding the call to move to safer locations.
“One thing we discovered is there are tenants, people renting in the community, that haven’t been informed about the risks and aren’t signed up for Aware & Prepare,” he said, referring to the effort aimed at strengthening emergency and disaster readiness across the county. (Register for alerts at awareandprepare.org.)
“The takeaway for us is that we really need to communicate with our neighbors and the people around us to make sure they’re aware of the risks involved in these debris flow risk areas and that we all help each other get out,” Mr. Powell said.
The Bucket Brigade, said Mr. Powell, has been deployed since its inception just to help people recover from last year’s deadly events.
“As we headed into the winter, we started building readiness for whatever might happen,” he said. “This debris flow potential is going to go on for at least another three years to come.”
“We’re seeing the potential for more problems,” he continued, “so we need to have our readiness commensurate with the potential threat.”
Mr. Powell praised the county for all it’s done to ensure flood-control channels are ready.
“They’ve done an amazing job,” he said. “They took a lot of heat (in) the L.A. Times, which I felt was unwarranted and not backed up properly,” referring to a recent report.
“Right now the creeks are wide open. It’s looking really good, all the debris basins are really cleared and we’re as ready as we can be.”
Montecito Fire Department Chief Chip Hickman was equally upbeat, telling the News-Press about 30 minutes before the evacuation order took effect that local agencies’ all-hands-on-deck response to the storm and efforts to get personnel and equipment from here and elsewhere in place before the heavy rain moved in was the way to make a good outcome.
“I think we’re well prepared to deal with anything that might occur, and obviously if something does then we can ramp our staffing up from there.”