On Jan. 9, 2018, a series of early morning mudslides brought death and destruction down from the hills above Santa Barbara, taking 23 lives and injuring dozens more.
Now, exactly five years later, residents in the same Southern California town are watching anxiously as a powerful winter storm system with comparable rain totals sweeps through the area on a somber anniversary.
The 2018 debris flows happened early in the morning hours. The sounds of hills coming loose and rumbling down onto civilization is something that longtime Santa Barbara residents can still conjure in their heads.
About half an inch of rain fell on the coastal city in less than 30 minutes. The rainfall shook loose boulders and dislodged terrain left scorched from the 2017 Thomas Fire, which at the time was the state’s largest wildfire on record.
Mud, debris and boulders rolled down from the Santa Ynez Mountains above Montecito, flooding water ways, demolishing bridges and enveloping homes.
The mudslides happened quickly, moving at the speed of raging creeks unencumbered by obstacles as the debris and water made its way south to the ocean. In an instant, homes were uprooted and lives were permanently altered.
In total, 23 people were killed by the deadly disaster. Many of those killed died alongside loved ones who were also swept away from the mud and mire. Perhaps no family suffered more than the Taylor-Sutthithepa family who lost a grandfather, a father and two young children — one of whom, 2-year-old Lydia, has never been found.
Highway 101 was closed entirely for several days. Photos of mud stacked several feet high on the freeway, as high as a California Department of Transportation sign, were shared across social media as viewers from across the globe watched in shock as a pristine coastal community turned into a veritable warzone.
In the weeks and months that followed, the community worked together to dig out the homes that were buried. Remains of loved ones were eventually recovered, businesses eventually reopened and homes were rebuilt, but the Southern California city and its surrounding communities were forever changed.
Now, on the half-decade anniversary of the devastating natural disaster, residents and first responders are going above and beyond in hopes of preventing another calamity.
With another atmospheric river, high surf and flood warnings, Santa Barbara County leaders and emergency managers are taking extra precautions.
Evacuation orders are in place across the southern portion of the county as rain continues to pour. The bulk of those evacuations are taking place in the scars of recent wildfires, particularly the 2021 Alisal Fire in the mountains west of the city. Still many places under evacuation order are in the shadow of that old foe, the Thomas Fire.
Residents are being urged to shelter in place, avoid unnecessary driving, and evacuate at a moment’s notice. The entirety of Montecito, the epicenter of the 2018 destruction, is under a complete evacuation order.
Nearby, residents in Carpinteria, Summerland and Toro Canyon were urged to leave as soon as possible.
Many places that may have been simply under warnings to evacuate are under full scale evacuation orders as officials hope to avoid a repeat of 2018’s life-altering event.
“This is rapidly evolving and we have major issues that are occurring across the county,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown during a press conference Monday. “This is not a day to be out doing anything if you don’t have to.”
Brown, who was sheriff at the time of the 2018 debris flows and witnessed the overwhelming devastation firsthand, said residents were urged to “exercise extreme caution” as roads and creeks remained flooded with much of the worst yet to come.
The sheriff has urged residents of Santa Barbara and the outlying communities who haven’t been evacuated to open up their homes to those who have.
“That was something that really was important five years ago, and it’s important today as well,” Brown said.