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In mud-battered Montecito, back-to-back disasters 'overwhelming'  3 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

MONTECITO, Calif. — Residents of this beleaguered town look up and wonder aloud: “Haven’t we suffered enough?”

But they’re not looking at the sky for answers.

Instead, they’re staring east at the sharp peaks of the Los Padres National Forest, which were scorched by December’s Thomas Fire and then denuded by heavy rains that sent mudslides slamming through the town early Tuesday morning. The fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures and is blamed for at least two deaths.

Then the mudslide destroyed at least 65 more homes, damaged 462 others and killed at least 19 people. On Saturday, five people were still missing.

“It’s just so overwhelming,” said Bob Santoro, who spent Friday digging out a friend’s home. “People lost loved ones, their homes, their cars, their friends, entire neighborhoods in a matter of moments. That makes it all the more incomprehensible.”

The Thomas Fire, the worst wildfire in recorded state history, was only officially brought under control Friday. Crews are still trying to dig the 10,000-person town out from the mudslides that blocked roads, damaged bridges and once again forced dozens of businesses to close in this bucolic seaside community that counts Oprah and Ellen as homeowners.

Most residents have been ordered to leave and told it might be weeks before they can return as workers clear the roads and search for buried bodies.

Those few remaining have been walking their dogs and trying to hold back tears of loss —  the loss of kids, loss of neighborhoods, even favorite trees.

“It’s kind of like one of those movies where everyone vanishes but you,” said retired veterinarian and 30-year Montecito resident Gary Shaw, who refused to evacuate. Many Montecito residents evacuated for two weeks during the height of the Thomas Fire, and authorities blame that for the decision by many residents to ignore the subsequent mudslide warnings.

The back-to-back disasters have exhausted rescue workers, drained overtime budgets and forced police detectives to set aside their caseloads to run security checkpoints in the evacuation zones. Vacations have been missed. Family celebrations put on hold. Tempers are fraying.

You can’t drink the water, the natural gas, power, Internet and cable are on the fritz, and the curving sandy beaches are closed because of contamination.

Even leaving is hard: The mudslide has indefinitely blocked U.S. Highway 101, the main route south to Los Angeles.

“It’s breathtakingly horrible out there,” said Das Williams, an elected county supervisor who represents Montecito.

Williams said it’s still unclear how many people will be able to rebuild. Although the median home value in Montecito is $3.3 million, not everyone who lives here is wealthy. Many older residents are on fixed incomes and government-assisted health care, he said, and few people had flood insurance because they live on the side of a mountain. It’s possible fire insurance will cover the mudslide damage, he said, but that’s still an open question.

Fighting the Thomas Fire cost about $177 million, although federal reimbursements should cover most of that, Williams said. What won’t be covered, he said, are the businesses that have closed because tourists have been staying away.

He urged the public to consider visiting Santa Barbara County, staying out of the disaster zones and evacuation areas, of course, to show their support and deliver much-needed tourist dollars. Because the 101 remains closed, few visitors from the Los Angeles area, about 100 miles south, have been coming to the city of Santa Barbara, which is out of the disaster zone and fully open.

“I can tell you one of the biggest things people can do to help is to treat us like a wonderful place to be, because it is. Even though there’s a disaster, it’s not disrespectful to come here,” Williams said. “We will clean this up. The trains are open. The freeway will be open at some point. If people want to help, they can be part of it just by visiting.”




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