When Peri Thompson of San Diego watched a televised helicopter rescue of a family shortly after a massive debris flow slammed into the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, she was shocked to see that the drama unfolding was at a home she owned.
Thompson had rented the house in Montecito to a young family that narrowly escaped death when the 30-square-mile debris flow raced down fire-scarred mountains after an intense rain on January 9.
“They woke up from the sound of crashing and when they got out of bed to see what it was, (the house) was waist-deep in mud, debris and boulders,” Thompson says.
Using an attic ladder Thompson had recently installed, the couple pulled themselves, their newborn, two other children and two dogs out of the mud and into the attic. From there they climbed onto the roof and into a basket dangled from a hovering U.S. Coast Guard helicopter which then pulled them up and flew them to safety.
“And they took their dogs,” Thompson said of the rescue crew. “Their two large dogs.”
Relieved that her tenants made it out safely, Thompson was left with the task of assessing the damage to her home - one of more than 300 houses filled with mud, rocks and debris several feet high. And that’s when she – like many property owners in Montecito – discovered she was underinsured for this type of disaster, which left her unsure of how to move forward.
“You just come here and it just seems absolutely futile to do anything,” she says. “It’s mind boggling.”
And expensive, says Abe Powell.
Powell is a director for the Montecito Fire Protection District and a founder of the newly formed Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade. The volunteer group has helped more than five dozen homeowners dig out from the mud, for free.
“Most of the homes we’re digging out are the smaller homes where the working families live,” says Powell. “And so usually with a crew of 40 to 50 we can get that mostly completed in a day.”
So far, he says, more than 2,000 volunteers have shown up to shovel. While some volunteers work to clear mud from inside each house, Powell oversees crews working outside to clear debris with help from a mini-excavator and other heavy equipment the group rents with donation dollars.
Job one: dig a path to the front door – much the same way you’d clear a walkway of snow.
“Second thing is we dig the cars out,” Powell says. “And then the next thing is to dig out inside and dig a perimeter around the house so the walls can start to dry out and that’s very important because a house will literally rot from within.”
The crews pile dirt in each yard for the homeowner to dispose of. And while dumping it is costly, Powell estimates the group has saved Montecito residents more than a million dollars in cleanup costs so far.
But the work happening each weekend in Montecito helps more than just the hard-hit homeowners, says local contractor and volunteer John Trimble of Santa Barbara.
“For most of the volunteers it’s as much for them as it is for the people they’re helping,” says Trimble. “It really is a cleansing experience for the community.”
Fellow volunteer Jed Hirsch, also a local contractor who lives in nearby Summerland says with each passing week, those who show up to dig seem to be more relaxed.
"People are beginning to smile,” Hirsh says. “And that’s the interesting part of it – seeing how people are maturing into this tragedy."
For many touched by the tragedy, digging has become a way to connect with others and to begin processing the disaster that took at least 21 lives.
A toddler girl and teenaged boy remain missing and are presumed dead.
“You know, there are families out there that are never going to recover from this,” says local realtor and bucket brigade volunteer Josiah Hamilton. “The families that lost lives and the people who perished in this, that’s something that we always just want to keep in our hearts.”
With the cleanup far from over, it’s likely to take some time before many homeowners in Montecito learn whether their houses can be saved.
Still, Peri Thompson says, she considers herself among the lucky ones: Not only did her tenants escape tragedy, but now she and her neighbors are getting the help they need - from total strangers.
“I don’t know these people at all,” she said wiping tears from her eyes as she took a break from cleanup to watch the volunteers at work.
“I mean, they’ve come out here and dug and I don’t know why I’m crying because it’s a really wonderful thing."