Virtual ceremony commemorates victims, survivors of devastating debris flow
Twenty-three bells chimed for all to hear in Montecito on Saturday night.
And, as the searchlight was illuminated at Montecito Union School, residents in the nearby coastal community took the time to show solidarity for the victims and survivors of the devastating debris flow event of Jan. 8, 2018, that has left a lasting impact in Montecito.
The flooding, mudslides and debris flow that occurred in the wake of the Thomas Fire was the worst tragedy of many lifetimes.
The victims were: Rebecca Riskin, 61; Jim Mitchell, 89; Alice Mitchell, 78; Marilyn Ramos, 27; Jonathan Benitez, 10; Kaelly Benitez, 3; Fabiola Benitez; David Cantin, 49; Jack Cantin, 17; Mark Montgomery, 54; Caroline Montgomery, 22; Josephine Gower, 69; John McManigal, 61; Roy Rohter, 84; Peter Fleurat, 73; Sawyer Corey, 12; Morgan Christine Corey, 25; Pinit Sutthithepa, 30; Peerawat Sutthithepa, 6; Lydia Sutthithepa, 2; Richard Taylor, 79; Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48; and Joseph Bleckel, 87.
Montecito Fire Protection District Chief Kevin Taylor was at the fire headquarters on Saturday night. He read an invocation for the victims, and then the on-duty fire personnel lit 23 candles to honor those who lost their lives.
“We have just endured an incredibly difficult and painful year, and are still in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said. “But that does not take away from the very real experiences of loss and hardship that this community has endured over the last three years, and that many community members are still experiencing today. We learned in 2018 that solidarity, cooperation, and caring were the keys to rebuilding a resilient community in the wake of tragedy, and that is still just as true in 2021.”
Chief Taylor continued, “Anniversaries of tragedy are painful and a challenging time for the survivors and for the families and neighbors who lost loved ones. Anniversaries are painful reminders for those who lost their homes, or livelihoods; reminders of the challenges that they have faced, and are still facing, on the difficult road to recovery. Many survivors have not yet even begun the rebuilding process and others are still working to rebuild homes and lives since the mountain came down on them in 2018. But just as we rose up together in 2018, we can rise up together in love, support and remembrance.”
The event was held via Zoom and on Facebook Live in observance with health orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This virtual event is an expression of that real solidarity of compassion of this community reaching out to you,” said Chief Taylor. “We have not forgotten you. We love you, we care and we are still here for you. We are very sorry that you’re not able to join together in person due to the pandemic, but we can still stand together in spirit and raise our lights and our hearts in remembrance of those we have lost and of those who are still with us. You are not forgotten; you are cared for.”
The invocation was followed by a moment of silence.
Event sponsors for the ceremony included the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, Montecito Association and the Montecito Community Foundation.
Speaking with the News-Press earlier this week, Sharon Byne, executive director of the Montecito Association, acknowledged the devastation of the lives lost in the aftermath of the debris flow, while also making mention of the strong community bonds that were formed in the days, weeks, months and years that have followed.
“On the morning of Jan. 9, neighbors were running out to help other neighbors,” she said. “That was not the typical Montecito experience. But sometimes, in disasters, you discover your most humanitarian selves.”
Abe Powell, one of the co-founders of the Bucket Brigade, recalled waking up in the early morning hours on the day of the event from a loud rain. He looked out the window and witnessed a “pulsing red light” from the gas main explosion that occurred.
“It looked like the almighty had turned on a siren,” he recalled.
What came next was the sound of boulders smashing against each other, and houses getting smashed by debris.
It took him back to a similar debris flow event in 1995, when staying at a friend’s house in the nearby mountains. That incident leveled homes in the neighborhood, and the community came together and went house to house and pulled everyone out.
In 2008, Mr. Powell was a facilitator for a sandbag event in the wake of the Tea Fire. Just days before a storm hit, some 500 people showed up to collect sandbags for protection.
“That’s when we saw that it wasn’t just our neighborhood that could engage this way,” he said. “But the broader community would respond if it was organized properly.
“In my mind, that was my first experience in a broader, community relief effort.”
Mr. Powell explained that, in the wake of the Thomas Fire, he was well aware of the troubles that could come as a result of a debris flow event.
After the debris flow, Mr. Powell was talking with his wife after some friends had received negative feedback from their insurance company. The Powells grew frustrated and concerned and decided to take action.
On Jan. 28, 2018, around 50 people showed up to volunteer in the efforts. Little did they know, Mr. Powell recalled, that they would be working diligently day in and day out for the next three months.
The small group soon grew to some 3,000 volunteers. Though they encountered “some minor first aid situations,” the group was able to assist without major injuries. They helped dig out more than 100 homes, thousands of trees, and cleared out some 66 acres of open space.
“Hundreds of homes were smashed and the community was stifled in this mud and muck,” Mr. Powell said. “There was certainly a level of trauma, but it was really opposed by this level of need to respond.
“The mountain came down on us, and a ground swell of humanity rose up.”
He said that events like the debris flow can transform people for the better or worse.
“I think what we saw in this community was a will not to be transformed for the worse… despite our losses, there was a will to respond,” he said.
Mr. Powell stressed the importance of the commemoration event, explaining that “anniversaries are fraught times, emotionally and psychologically, for the survivors.”
“There’s definitely this feeling of pain from the past that’s coming at you. But that makes it that much more important to take in that safety net around you and that community support net,” he said.
Even on Saturday, Mr. Powell was in the middle of the action, serving as the “tech guy” for the event. He spent the day setting up the 10,000 watt search light and tripod cameras as various sites.
One of the memories he recalled fondly was the first day of volunteering, which he described as “a life-changer,” in large part because he had no idea how the community would respond.
“And on top of that, we didn’t know what we would find. It was a situation where, more than anything, we wanted to find those kids,” he said, referencing the bodies of Jack Cantin and Lydia Sutthithepa, which were never located. “But what we feared the most was also finding those kids. We were in a moment of absolute terror and purpose, but we proceeded.”
During their efforts, the Bucket Brigade made a number of what Mr. Powell referred to as “miracle finds.”
The group was able to locate at least four wedding rings and return them to their owners, as well as various books, manuscripts, artwork and other possessions that many thought they would never see again.
“If that’s not a needle in a haystack, I don’t know what is,” he said. “There were millions of piles of debris, but we still found those items.”
The Bucket Brigade was just one community organization that emerged in the wake of the disaster.
Speaking with the News-Press last week, Chief Taylor credited the group, and many others, that played vital roles in helping during the time of need.
“They all went in and helped individual community members gather some of the things they thought they would never see again,” he said. “They’re still out there helping to rally the community.”
Before the debris flow, Chief Taylor said the Montecito community was designed by “gates and hedges,” though after the event the community was designed by people coming together, neighbor helping neighbor and becoming a true community.
One of the most vivid memories he has was the scene at All Saints-by-the-Sea Church, at 83 Eucalyptus Lane, which became a casualty collection point in the hours after the event.
Chief Taylor said the coastal city will be at risk for up to five years following the Thomas Fire as the watershed recovers. He said the watersheds were in “way better shape” currently than before the event, though they “still have a ways to go before total recovery.”
As outlined last month during a Zoom webinar, officials estimate that the upper portions of the hills above Montecito are roughly 80 to 100% recovered.
“The fact of the matter is that the community remains susceptible to debris flows if we get that high-intensity, short duration rain event,” Chief Taylor said.
The National Weather Service projects that 8 to 10 inches of rainfall accumulating over a 72 hour period could trigger a debris flow event, or a short burst of 1.5 inches per hour or more.
The debris flow not only left Montecito grieving due to the loss of life suffered, but it also destroyed infrastructure throughout the area. This included countless sewer lines, water lines, gas lines and power lines in the area. The event also caused massive destruction to bridges and roadways, some of which have since been rebuilt.
“Some of that work was done exceedingly rapidly thanks to the utility companies, and that really has allowed our community to return to normal as quickly as we have,” he said.
He also credited the county Public Works Department for their efforts in helping with the rebuild, applying for emergency permits and grants. Pavement work on some of the roads damaged is continuing, he said.
As discussed during last month’s webinar, County Flood Control engineering manager Jon Frye highlighted six debris basins, including two proposed basins that will be constructed in the next few years.
The county has received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to construct a debris basin along Randall Road, which is scheduled for construction in 2021 and on target. A second proposed basin, the Buena Vista Creek debris basin, did not have an associated date, though Mr. Frye said the county has applied for a FEMA grant that is still under review.
He went on to outline some of the projects that have occurred or are planned for the Cold Springs, San Ysidro, Romero and Santa Monica debris basins.
The Cold Springs debris basin was expanded a few months ago, while additional improvements are planned for that basin, as well as the three others, over the next two years.
The storm impact consideration map unveiled last month showed 445 parcels in the Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria areas. This compared to 517 parcels a year ago, and 1,508 parcels two years ago.
Last year, the watershed and flood control systems performed very well in handling the storms and no evacuation orders were issued. While no two storm events are the same and the watershed responds differently to each, residents are advised to remain vigilant.
“Because our highest risk is at the tail end of a saturation event, we do not anticipate issuing protective action orders as the result of a single storm,” Chief Taylor said last month.
To view the maps or to learn more about hazard preparedness, visit https://readysbc.org.