Families frantically search for loved ones missing in Montecito mudslide

A man walks by destruction along Olive Mill Road in Montecito.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As the death toll rose to 15 in the Montecito mudslide disaster, family members continue to frantically look for loved ones who might still be missing.

At the evacuation center at Santa Barbara City College on Monday night, someone had put up a white posterboard, with “message board” scrawled in black.

Below, in blue, was scrawled “Augie & Karen Johnson,” with a question mark in front of their names. Below and next to it were other names, also with question marks, as people searched for loved ones.

One name at the top had been crossed out, with “He is OK” scrawled next to it. People left phone numbers on yellow sticky notes, asking others to please call and sometimes telling them they loved them.

When a woman came in trying to find her mother, a volunteer checked the message board.


“She wouldn’t have been able to leave a note,” the woman said, before heading off to scour the shelter for her.

Jessica Piffero, regional director of communications for the Red Cross, said she’s seen message boards go up before. “I think the missing people and the fatalities are definitely weighing heavy on this community right now. We’ve already been through so much with the fire. Now for this to have hit .... it’s taking an emotional toll for sure.”

Issac Cervantes painstakingly checked each sticky note and piece of paper attached to the message board, hoping to hear about someone he knows who lives in Montecito.

Cervantes met Larry about three years ago while the two worked together at UCSB. Larry was a mechanic, who has since retired.

“From what I heard, where he lived is like totally gone now,” Cervantes said. “He doesn’t really have anybody that talks to him. He’s shut off from everybody ... I just wanted to see if he was here.”

Cervantes had been out for a drive with his wife and baby when he came to check the shelter. “I just want to find him and make sure he’s OK,” he said. “I had to check.”

Sally Mobraaton, 56, arrived at Santa Barbara City College shortly after 8 p.m. in a frenzy.

The Goleta resident had tried calling 911 and had already been driving around for hours to find her 86-year-old mother, whom firefighters had evacuated from a condo at Montecito Shores earlier that day.

Mobraaton stood outside the evacuation shelter nearly in tears as she spoke with a Red Cross volunteer.

“I’m not sure where she could be,” the volunteer said.

Determined to find her ailing mother, Mobraaton hopped back inside her white SUV and decided to head to a Vons on Coast Village Road where the National Guard had been dropping people off.

Along the way she called hotels in Santa Barbara to see if her mother was there, but she had no luck. Despite police roadblocks on the streets, she forged ahead.

About 10 minutes later she pulled into the parking lot at Vons. She glanced around. Still no sign of her mom.

But then she spotted an elderly woman wearing a red raincoat and a white hat.

She breathed a sigh of relief and shouted: “That’s my mother!”

With the engine of the car still running, Mobraaten jumped out, ran to her mother and gave her a kiss. “I’m happy I found you, Mom,” she said as members of the National Guard helped them put her mother’s suitcase inside the car.

Sally’s mom, Cynthia Mobraaten, wore a huge smile.

Inside the car, Sally joked with her mom. “I’m so jealous you got to ride in a military vehicle, Mom! I want to hear all about it.”

“I bet my butt is still muddy,” her mom replied, chuckling. “I didn’t let you get your beauty sleep tonight, I guess.”