National News

Mud and Loss in a California Enclave of the Famous

Posted January 14, 2018 11:10 p.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2018 11:24 p.m. EST

MONTECITO, Calif. — A green, military-style Humvee drove along the shore here, the beach on one side, the shuttered Four Seasons Hotel on the other. Up in the hillsides, a no-go zone for civilians, multimillion-dollar mansions are flooded with mud, and cars, tossed about like playthings, are now just hunks of twisted metal, jammed against trees.

On the facades of the big homes are orange markings. An X denotes the house was checked and cleared by rescuers. A V indicates a victim was pulled, alive, from the wreckage. A V with a slash through it indicates a dead body was found.

Unimaginable tragedy struck this small, exclusive enclave, nestled between the mountains and the ocean and home to many celebrities, last week when a torrential downpour — a “once in 200 years” storm, officials are quick to say — set off deadly mudslides in a landscape that, just last month, was scorched from the state’s largest wildfire on record.

With more than 2,000 rescue workers from across the state combing through the thick mud, two more bodies were discovered over the weekend, bringing the death toll to 20. Four people remained missing on Sunday, and while officials insist their mission is still search and rescue, few are holding out hope for more survivors.

A search team discovered the 19th victim, Morgan Christine Corey, 25, on Saturday. Her 12-year-old sister, Sawyer Corey, was also among those who died. The 20th victim was Pinit Sutthithepa, a 30-year-old father whose 6-year-old son, Peerawat, had already been counted among the dead, and whose 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, is still missing.

The tragedy has also upended life across the Central Coast. Highway 101, an important artery that connects Los Angeles to coastal communities, is closed indefinitely, officials said, and residents have jammed into standing-room-only cars on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train to get from one town to another.

Even though this community is only beginning to mourn its dead — candlelight vigils were held Saturday night and Sunday — there is a growing worry that there may be more to come. Last week’s rains, which were so deadly because the fires had left the earth bare, and susceptible to sudden flooding and mudslides, were just the start of California’s rainy season.

“This was just the very first storm,” Larry Collins, an officer with the state’s emergency service, said on Saturday, surrounded by the devastation. “We don’t know what’s coming.”

Bill Brown, sheriff of Santa Barbara County, said meteorologists were predicting new rains on Thursday, raising fears of more floods and difficult questions about possible evacuations in a wide coastal area of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that were part of the wildfire zone. Collins said that up to 300,000 people across the region could be in jeopardy if more rains come.

Inevitably, given the scale of the tragedy in Montecito, townspeople are also questioning whether or not authorities should have evacuated more people. In the days before the rain, authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for about 7,000 residents, and voluntary evacuations for an additional 23,000 people. Many residents, though, having just returned to their homes after being displaced from the wildfires, chose to stay put.

But officials say they did all they could. Officers went door to door asking people to leave. Rescue workers were brought up from Long Beach, and positioned nearby. On the day before the storm, firefighters were driving around Montecito, clearing obstacles from creeks. In one area, three homes that had sat close together vanished, leaving just pieces of the foundation, and a resident walked around with a plastic bin looking for items he lost. Other homes were only partly damaged; one white mansion had just a wall ripped off, revealing a library of neatly stacked books.

Peeking from the mud were ordinary objects — a single white sneaker, a child’s red wagon. All around it looked like a war zone, but a narrower focus revealed there was still beauty, with herb and flower gardens — rosemary, lantana, magnolia — left untouched in some places.

Montecito, a secluded community in Santa Barbara County of about 10,000 people, has long drawn the fabulously rich and the merely wealthy. The attractions are obvious: stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, a Mediterranean climate, proximity to Los Angeles, and privacy.

Up in the hills, there is the San Ysidro Ranch, a cluster of luxury cottages where John and Jacqueline Kennedy spent their honeymoon in 1953. Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the community’s most famous resident, owns a 23-acre estate with horse stalls and a koi pond.

“In general, when the movie stars come to Santa Barbara, to Montecito, they don’t want to be bothered,” said Erin Graffy, a local historian and writer who has lived in the area for more than 50 years. She arrived as a young girl when her father took a job nearby as a test pilot in California’s then-growing aerospace industry. “And they know Santa Barbara won’t bother them. It would be considered beneath us to go up and fawn over a movie star.”

And besides, she said, “the pecking order here is length of residence,” not money or fame. A marker of social cachet, she said, is to refer to oneself as a descendiente, or descendant, of the Spanish settlers who built the Presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782 — not unlike those on the East Coast who trace their ancestry to the Mayflower.

Montecito is a community that is accustomed to natural disasters as a cost of living in such a beautiful place, but not tragedy on this scale.

“Clearly, nothing of this magnitude was imagined,” said Bill Macfadyen, who has lived in Montecito for decades and is the publisher of the local news site, Noozhawk. “We have had floods before, but nothing like this.”

On Sunday Mike Eliason, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, drove his white truck through the mud-choked streets, navigating narrow lanes and the high hedges that still surrounded some of the mansions.

“Oprah is down the street,” he said, pointing left. He then ticked off a list of other famous names: Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Bridges, Al Gore, Robert Zemeckis.

“For a town that is full of movie stars and producers and celebrities, you could not have written a worse disaster movie for this area,” he said.

But Montecito is not only a place for the fabulously wealthy.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t rich, who are staying with friends or family or in a hotel,” he said. “There are everyday people who work hard and have homes and they’ve lost everything, too.” Every time a disaster strikes in paradise there are the inevitable questions of whether living there is worth the dangers.

“It’s Montecito,” said Macfadyen. “It’s Santa Barbara. People will always want to live there.”

Either way, the tragedy will resonate for years. “It will be months before any semblance of normalcy returns,” said Brown, the sheriff. “And years before the whole community is rebuilt.”