When a massive debris flow slammed into the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito along California's coast, Peri Thompson of San Diego, Calif. was shocked to see the drama was unfolding at her own house. She watched the televised helicopter rescue of a young family who rented her Montecito house.
The family narrowly escaped death when a 30-square-mile debris flow raced down a mountain and into the town after an intense rain this January. All told, over 20 people ranging in age from 3-89 died.
Thompson's tenants "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," she says.
Using an attic ladder Thompson had recently installed, the couple was able to pull themselves and their three children – including a newborn – and two dogs out of the mud and up into the attic, where they were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
After learning her tenants survived the ordeal, a relieved Thompson was left with 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 in Montecito, discovered she was underinsured for this type of disaster.
"You just come here and it just seems absolutely futile to do anything," she says. "It's mind-boggling."
And expensive, adds Abe Powell.
Powell, director of the Montecito Fire Protection District, is the founder of the newly-formed Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade – an all-volunteer group that has helped more than five dozen stuck homeowners – like Thompson - dig out of 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 work to clear the mud from inside each house, Powell oversees others who work outside with help from a mini-excavator and other heavy equipment the group rents with donation dollars.
The first job: dig 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. And while dumping it is costly, Powell estimates the group has saved residents here more than $1,000,000 in cleanup costs so far.
The work helps more than just the hard-hit homeowners. For many touched by the tragedy, digging has become a way to connect with others and to begin processing the disaster that killed so many. "For most of the volunteers, it's as much for them as it is for the people they're helping," says local contractor and volunteer John Trimble of Santa Barbara. "It really is a cleansing experience for the community."
Jed Hirsch is also a local contractor and volunteer who lives in nearby Summerland. He says that, with each passing week, those who show up to dig seem to be more relaxed.
"People are beginning to smile," he said. "And that's the interesting part of it – seeing how people are maturing into this tragedy."
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 watched the volunteers 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."
NPR's Emily Sullivan produced this story.