National News

Lessons From Montecito’s Neighbor

Posted January 17, 2018 1:51 p.m. EST

Less than 20 miles down the coast from where emergency workers in Montecito, California, are searching for victims of last week’s mudslides is the tiny beach town of La Conchita, where grief and vigilance are permanently intertwined.

With about 330 inhabitants, La Conchita offers a scale model of the delights of living in California — and of the risks: the fires, rising sea levels, mudslides and earthquakes.

The beach is only steps away. Lemons and avocados grow willingly in the abundant sunshine. Yet residents live in fear of the loose soil above them. In 1995, part of the steep hillside behind the town collapsed, sending a river of mud into the streets and damaging a dozen houses. Engineers built a wall, sinking steel I-beams, the type you might use to build a skyscraper, deep into the ground. Ten years later, after heavy rainfall, the hillside gave way again. Mud surged down the slope and deflected off the wall meant to protect the town, according to Mike Bell, head of the La Conchita Community Organization, which serves as a de facto local government.

Ten people were killed in that January 2005 mudslide. Their bodies were recovered but parts of their homes are still buried under a giant mound of soil, a monument to the town’s suffering and lingering fears.

“Every day we think about what happened in 2005,” Bell said on Tuesday. “We know what Montecito is going through because we lived through exactly the same thing. It was a mud flow, it was rapid-moving, it buried people.”

A number of articles have been published recently about people pondering the wisdom of living in California, fire-prone and seismically volatile as it is, not to mention bank-account-emptying expensive.

When heavy rain comes, Bell plows mud flows off the streets with the town’s tractor the way Americans farther north do with snow.

I asked him if he had a message for the grieving residents of Montecito.

“Work together as a community, as a team,” he said.

But the words of a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey report on La Conchita are equally apt.

“This was not the first destructive landslide to damage this community,” the report said, “nor is it likely to be the last.”