Still reeling from the deadly deluge that struck their coastal town almost two months ago, Montecito residents aren’t taking any chances this time around.
Healy Young, with her clothes and important possessions packed, booked a two-day hotel stay in downtown Santa Barbara. John Beck can’t take his eyes off the news, while Marco Farrell has been shoveling mud and dropping sandbags around his home all week.
They’re bracing for a major storm expected to hit Southern California on Thursday, the first since a violent torrent sent car-sized boulders tumbling through neighborhoods Jan. 9, sweeping away homes and killing 21 people.
This time around, they’re ready — and willing — to go.
“This will likely be our new reality for the next four years,” said Farrell, who spent this week piling leftover hunks of debris onto trucks, wearing a mask to shield his face from swirling dust.
So far, forecasters do not anticipate the same level of intense downpours that triggered the devastating January mudslides, but said the storm could dump as much as half an inch of rain per hour — enough to cause debris flows in burn areas — late Thursday through Friday morning.
Some perspective: During the earlier storm, the hills of Montecito saw that much rain in just five minutes.
“The last one we had, which was obviously devastating, was a short time but a heavy, heavy rain,” said Curt Kaplan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “We'll see some higher rates but nothing like we saw in those short bursts on Jan. 9.”
The heaviest rainfall near the massive burn scars in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties is expected after midnight Thursday and in the predawn hours Friday. Valley areas could see 1 to 2 inches of rain, while ocean-facing mountain slopes from Santa Barbara down to Los Angeles counties may get up to about 2 to 3 inches.
A flash flood watch was issued not only for the Thomas and Whittier fire burn areas, but also for the La Tuna and Creek fire burn zones.
On Wednesday night, Santa Barbara County authorities continued to urge residents below fire-ravaged hills to evacuate, especially those with large animals or limited mobility who may need longer to get out.
While they stopped short of ordering the 30,000 or so residents below the Thomas fire burn zone to leave, they said that could change early Thursday as they continue to monitor the forecast.
“We will likely order an evacuation order Thursday morning if the storm stays or increases intensity,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. “We will wait to see how the storm develops.”
If the evacuation order is given, Brown said authorities will go door-to-door in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and will also rely heavily on emergency alerts. The goal is to give residents a 12-hour notice.
Crews have cleared 92% of the debris basins in the area, said Robert Lewin, director of the county’s emergency management office.
In recent days, residents have noticed authorities being more aggressive in communicating the dangers of the upcoming storm.
“The county has totally changed,” said Farrell, while directing traffic near his house on Olive Mill Road. “I’ve been getting warnings through social media and people are handing out fliers at restaurants…. I’m impressed by how seriously they’re taking this storm.”
Like many of his neighbors, the 38-year Montecito resident said he didn’t leave during the January storm because he lived in a voluntary evacuation zone. Officials have since stopped using “voluntary” in their evacuation alerts after concerns that such wording was ineffective in getting people to leave.
A sense of disaster fatigue after the Thomas fire also left some residents unwilling to evacuate yet again. For some, it was a deadly choice.
Young, the Montecito resident who made hotel arrangements this week, said damage to her friends’ and family’s homes motivated her to take extra precautions.
“Too many of my friends lost so much that I don’t want to risk it,” she said as she walked her dog Wednesday afternoon. Earlier in the week, she had dropped sandbags around her house and cleaned out nearby storm drains.
Back on Olive Mill Road, Ken Diebold draped a plastic tarp over a steep hill of mud on his driveway.
“I’m doing this just to be sure it doesn’t get swept down the road or even onto the freeway again, like last time,” he said.
Diebold and his family stayed put in January, thinking their home of 22 years was far enough away from the burn area in a voluntary evacuation zone. When the torrent swept through his neighborhood, he escaped through a window with his wife and three children.
“I’m never going to do that to my family again,” he said.
Traumatized, the Diebolds moved out. Now, for at least the next year, they’re renting a house five miles away.
“My wife told me we can’t live anywhere near an evacuation zone,” Diebold said. “Some days I’m stressed and having a bad day and other days it’s my wife who is having a bad day. As long as neither of us feels bad on the same day we manage to get through it.”
Anxiety has extended beyond Montecito to neighboring communities. Carmella Giambo, 29, said making the decision to leave her home in Carpinteria was easy.
“My sister lost her home in Montecito,” Giambo said as she shoveled sand into a bag near the Santa Barbara Flood Control Shop. “I’m taking everything more seriously.”