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'It was like a bomb went off': First the heavy rain, then the mud, now a disaster on the coast

'It was like a bomb went off': First the heavy rain, then the mud, now a disaster on the coast
A Santa Barbara County Fire Department search dog looks for people potentially trapped in damaged or destroyed homes in Montecito following a deadly runoff of mud and debris from heavy overnight rains. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Standing outside his home on Foothill Road in Carpinteria near Ocean Oaks Road in a white hard hat and thick yellow-and-red rain gear, Peter Lapidus was covered in mud.

His house is near a creek, Arroyo Paredon, and his road was covered in a thick sludge of mud. Lapidus, who works in construction and has his own John Deere tractor, had spent all day clearing the roadway, which was impassable past the creek, covered in downed trees, boulders and thick mud.

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Lapidus heard the rain's pummeling about 4:10 Tuesday morning.

"It was like a bomb went off. It wasn't raining hard, and then it was like you flipped a switch."

A neighbor told him he heard his toilet seat rattling up and down from the force of the debris flow. Another neighbor was jolted awake by his bedside lamp rattling next to him.

Lapidus heard the trees coming down: "Crack, crack, crack." Trees and boulders dammed up the creek. Mud was waist high, nearly topping mailboxes.

His family has owned the property with his house since 1915, and he doesn't remember a flash flood this bad, ever.

Areas that burn in wildfires can face severe flood risks when it rains.

Neighbors said the Thomas fire had burned about a quarter-mile away, as the crow flies, and they had mandatory evacuations from that. Lapidus didn't evacuate during the fire, though, choosing instead to stay and protect his house.

"Instead of a nice little rain to settle the dust, we have a flood. It's just kind of ironic," Lapidus said.

He and neighbors and his 17-year-old son, Carson, worked all morning to try to clear the mud from the road. Neighbors cheered as Lapidus skillfully navigated his tractor up Foothill, pushing mud off to the side.

They didn't have any help from officials or authorities, he said. It seemed like all the agencies were spread too thin, so the homeowners took matters into their own hands.

"This was more frightening than the fire," he said.

By early afternoon Tuesday, rain was coming and going. The sun would peek out only to be followed by another drenching. The creek threatened to overflow over a narrow bridge.

Lapidus' son, Carson, walked down to the creek early this morning and stopped when the mud got to his waist.

"It's like wet concrete," he said of the sludge. "Cleanup is going to take a long time."

A student at Carpinteria High School, Carson is in his sixth week off after the fire, the winter holiday and now a flood.

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He walked with a big stick down the muddy road to make sure he didn't trip in any holes.

"It's been an interesting year," he said. "Fires. Floods. You name it."

His mom woke him up about 4 a.m. and told him to listen. He went outside on the porch.

"It was like a freight train going through our backyard," he said. Even though they live about a third of a mile from the creek, they heard everything crashing around it.

"We've had some gnarly rains before where you'll hear a crack or two of a boulder, but this was constant," he said, adding that the noise went on for at least an hour.

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