Helicopters evacuate residents of Ventura County town left isolated, battered by storm
Andre Christou watched as the storms that have drenched much of California over the last two weeks turned from serene to scary in the remote wooded community of Matilija Canyon in Los Padres National Forest. She listened to a swollen creek push boulders down the canyon and saw its muddy, rushing waters swallow trees like sticks.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said 17 inches of rainfall over the course of one week left “towering piles of rock and mud” as high as 40 feet in some locations, blocking the single road into and out of the canyon. A part of Matilija Canyon Road collapsed into a raging creek below. Last week, Christou joined other residents who were evacuated by a Ventura County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.
“We have been staying with friends in town until we find a way to return back home,” said Christou, 56, adding that it’s unclear when that will be. “We’ve turned into nomads for a bit.”
She’s among more than 70 residents who were evacuated by helicopter from Matilija Canyon, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Ventura County Public Works estimates that it could take three weeks to clear the road and six more months to fully repair it.
“I know there are some people that chose to stay,” Christou said. “They have been living there forever, and they are not about to abandon their homes. They fend for everyone in the community, looking after their houses and pets.”
The back-to-back storms that hit over the weekend produced more rain than anticipated in many areas as well as powerful wind gusts.
Showers and wind are expected Monday before the series of storms that have battered California move out. Southern California should see dry conditions beginning Tuesday, while San Francisco, Sacramento and other northern areas of the state will probably have to wait until Thursday.
California has been hit since Christmas by atmospheric river storms, which caused widespread flooding, rockfalls, landslides and fallen trees. The death toll from the storms continues to rise, to more than 20. Over the weekend, an elderly woman was found dead next to a fallen tree branch in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park after a period of high winds and substantial rain.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to bolster staffing for emergency response, waive fees for residents who need to replace vital records such as birth certificates and provide additional support for healthcare facilities in the state and flooded schools in Merced County.
The Biden administration on Saturday approved Newsom’s request for a presidential disaster declaration, which will provide funding for recovery from the flooding, mudslides and landslides in California.
In Ventura County, Brian Briggs said mud took out his fence and poured down his driveway. He and his son spent hours shoveling debris to get the water and muck away from his home.
“When I found the mud was coming into my yard, that’s when I got scared,” said Briggs, 44, an insurance adjuster who moved from Ojai to Matilija Canyon a little more than two years ago.
Like many others, Briggs and his son were evacuated by helicopter amid warnings from the sheriff.
“When we got off the helicopter, it finally hit me, and I broke down sobbing,” Briggs said. “It wasn’t the worst disaster in the world, but it was 36 hours of constant stress trying to help people and ourselves.”
Patrick Maynard, director of Ventura County’s Office of Emergency Services, said the department is in contact with the two dozen residents who opted not to leave. No one has asked for evacuation assistance in the last couple of days, he said.
“Our recommendation is still for people to leave,” he said.
Maynard said Monday that the department was scheduled to fly in food for livestock that could not be evacuated. He said parts of the road into Matilija Canyon have been cleared of debris, but a massive chunk of pavement had fallen into the creek. With the weather improving, cleanup and repair efforts should speed up, he said.
“Work continues to be underway, and hopefully, with luck and God on our side, we can get access back into there,” Maynard said.
Over the past weeks, teams across the state have rescued people from flooded cars and neighborhoods. They are now preparing for the next series of storms.
Without the ability to drive into the area, some residents have hiked to their properties to check on homes and neighbors. Charity Manee said she was out of town with her husband and children when the latest storm hit, cutting off access to the property and leaving her mom stranded.
“It was pretty scary for her,” Manee said. “She was watching the house and our two dogs, and the power went out. We lost contact with her for a while.”
When the Sheriff’s Office offered air transportation out of the canyon, Manee said, her mom left the two dogs with a neighbor and “abandoned ship as soon as possible.”
Manee said her husband hiked four miles into the canyon to be with the dogs, which are a Labrador-Australian shepherd mix.
“We generally have an idea that the road could close in a large storm,” Manee said. “But nobody expected the severity of this storm.”
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