It was five years ago to the day that Trina Grokenberger watched a 30-foot tree trunk barrel past her Montecito house on a river of deep black mud that later tore her front door off its hinges.
She and her husband were among the lucky ones. Rescuers guided them to higher ground. Neighbors on both sides of their home died. In all, the 2018 mudslide killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes.
After the tragedy, the family moved to nearby Carpinteria. But on Monday, they once again were forced to flee as torrential rains pummeled the region, giving rise to the threat of more mudslides.
Packed in a three-car caravan, the family tried to make their way north but ran into flooding that closed the 101 Freeway and made the decision to return home despite evacuation orders.
“Every nightmare you can imagine goes through your head,” she said. Even their dog was a nervous wreck with the constant rain.
They were hardly the only ones with frayed nerves. The entire town of Montecito was ordered to evacuate Monday, as officials feared the heavy rains could once again bring devastating mudslides and flooding to the idyllic coastal community next to Santa Barbara.
Despite the eerie timing and similarities to 2018, the community is better prepared today, officials said. Still, a long and deadly history of floods and debris flows made worse by hillsides scarred by recent brush fires pushed emergency officials to give the evacuation order.
“I don’t know how we could do anything but ask the community to leave,” said Chief Kevin Taylor of the Montecito Fire Protection District. “While empathetic of the community that it’s a hardship and a burden, I most certainly would be negligent if we ignored the risk this storm presents.”
Typically gentle creeks swelled with muddy water that pounded through and over banks.
Videos from residents showed neighborhood streets that looked like streams.
Though the deadly mudslides of 2018 were fresh in people’s minds Monday, officials were guided more by the similarity of this week’s rains to a storm in 1969 that occurred five years after a wildfire, Taylor said. Similarly, the current rains arrived after the 2017 Thomas fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres and left the hillsides barren of brush, at risk of creating huge mudslides.
“It’s the exact same watershed, and we expect it to react the same way,” he said, calling it a “carbon copy of what the community experienced in 1969.”
It’s also similar to multiple incidents that have struck the small coastal community of about 8,600 residents in the last 200 years.
According to a recent private study funded by the Project For Resilient Communities, a nonprofit that was launched after the 2018 mudslides, the southern region of Santa Barbara County has seen 56 damaging flood events since 1825, including 22 damaging debris flows that damaged homes in Montecito.
“It keeps happening,” said Larry Gurrola, author of the study and a geomorphologist who has been working with the organization since late 2019. The report was completed last February.
About two-thirds of the 22 events occurred after a recent fire, he said.
Near Montecito, the steep hillsides also impede storms, forcing them to slow down and dump up to two to three times more water on the hillsides than on the coastal plain. Made of sandstone and shale, the soaked hillsides then dump out large boulders and debris, sometimes as far down as the coast.
Flow basins are meant to catch the debris, protecting homes and the community below.
A Los Angeles Times investigation into the 2018 mudslide found that despite previous warnings, county officials failed to build bigger basins to prevent catastrophic mudslides.
Today, Tayor said, the community is better prepared.
After the 2018 mudslide, basins were expanded and an additional basin was built. In 2018, the county also gave emergency permits to install 11 steel ring nets in the canyons above Montecito.
“Nobody in our community will ever forget what happened on 1-9,” Taylor said. “It’s the reason why our community is prepared for debris flows.”
Emergency officials still expect heavy rain and thunderstorms Tuesday, and the evacuation of Montecito will probably remain in place until after that storm passes through, Taylor said. Officials will then inspect hillsides, roadways and infrastructure before allowing residents back.
It’s a precaution worth taking, he said.
In Carpinteria, meanwhile, the Grokenberger family decided to shelter in place. Although the rain has been damaging, it didn’t seem as bad to them as what they experienced five years ago. This time, they said, they’re in an elevated spot, away from the flood zone.
“Having gone through the horror of that January 9, 2018, event, we’re not at that stage,” David Grokenberger said. “It looks like we won’t get to that stage. We’re in a better, safer place.”