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When Mountains Fall into the Heart of the Sea

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

My experience of the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito, California.

Written: 2018-2020

Published: 2021

I look back now and think of the girl I knew up until this point in my story. The girl who had experienced some simple challenges along the way, the girl who felt fragile, the girl who didn’t quite understand what it meant for God to literally rescue, the girl who almost always had pink little bows to tie around concepts, ideas and experiences.

If you’ve ever lived through or been touched by a natural disaster you know the helpless feeling. The feeling that you are somehow supposed to continue to live your life somewhere else, often in a state of evacuation, as the life you live is currently or will soon be disappearing. That was our experience when the Thomas Fire broke out on December 4, 2017.

Within a week the fire had grown to the largest in California’s history (at the time), traveled the 30 miles up the coast and was raging down the hills behind Santa Barbara. Ash fell so thick it looked like snow and blocked out the majority of the sunlight. People walked around with N-95 smoke masks on like a scene from the latest apocalyptic movie (now in 2020 we're all a little too used to that scene).

I work at a college in the hills of Montecito, Santa Barbara. We had already evacuated all of the students and my new boss was working around the clock in the first week of her new role as Vice President of Enrollment Marketing and Communications. The rest of our office commuted from various locations to a downtown location where they continued to read applications as the December deadline is one of the most important deadlines in our college admissions process for us.

Sunday December 10, around 6 a.m., the emergency alarm blared on my phone, it had finally reached the hills behind our small sanctuary of Montecito and it was time to go. At the time I was living in small studio in the backyard of a family home on the lower mountain area of Montecito. In less than an hour I packed almost the entirety of my apartment and my cat in my truck and we headed south on the 101 towards my parent’s home. I passed over 90 firetrucks on the freeway often in groups of 10 or more, sirens blazing. They were heading north, to station at the college and battle the fire as everyone else flooded out of Montecito and Santa Barbara to seek shelter. How people can serve consistently and wholeheartedly, putting themselves in the path of danger is something I am eternally grateful for. It was their efforts that saved our campus, Montecito and our homes that December.

I returned back to work, along with our staff, the first week in January and a week later we welcomed the students back. We opened with a chapel to thank the first responders, but only 2 out of 11 could make it because they were preparing for a large storm that night. My home was in the voluntary evacuation zone, but since we were on a hill and had never flooded before we decided not to evacuate. It was announced the storm arriving that night could dump 9 inches of rain, but that everyone was prepared. However, no one could prepare for what came next.

It was a ten year drought, which fueled the state’s largest fire, followed by a 200 year storm that hit directly over the most severely burned areas of our mountains. Half an inch of rain fell in five minutes and the mountains of Montecito literally came tumbling down.

I awoke around 2 a.m. that Tuesday morning, January 9, restless from the rain. It rained off and on with some heavy wind and at parts would resemble a torrential downpour, but nothing that concerned me. I got giddy when I started to hear thunder and see lightening as it was rare in California.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19

I had held onto this verse tightly in the fall as I had experienced a lot of new transitions and that night it seemed fitting, I was so thankful for the streams of rain in our desert land after such an awful fire season.

I was just getting back to sleep around 3:40 a.m. when I noticed the sky a bright orange and my initial was that it was dawn. After realizing it was still the middle of the night I ventured outside in the pouring rain to walk to the front of our house and get a better look, it looked like fire on the hillside above.

Turns out It was a fire that had resulted from an explosion at a house, caused by a ruptured gas line, that had been struck by boulders as they fell freely from the mountains above. What I thought was thunder and lighting that night was actually the sounds of boulders crashing into homes the next street over and what I saw were the flashes of power lines being taken out as a river of mud, debris and boulders overtook Montecito.

We gathered at 6 a.m to take a look outside, still unaware of what had happened. Our street looked normal and I walked with members of my house towards the creek, but after we turned the corner we were stopped by mud and water a street over from where the creek banks once stood. We grappled with flashlights in the dark and managed to make out a mangled kitchen sink laying in the knee deep mud next to us.

As light broke, national guard and emergency vehicles flooded into the neighborhood in trains. I watched as they loaded people and pets caked with mud into trucks, as others, who were able, literally walked out of the mud and onto our street. Some had shoes, some didn't, some had small bags or luggage they carried on their backs, while many were still dressed in their pajamas. A search and rescue team navigated mud-lined streets in a boat and rescue dogs combed through piles of debris. Watching all of this, I became numb.

As we walked the streets and checked on the neighbors and friends that the my house members knew (they had lived in Montecito for generations), we saw houses covered in about 5 ft. of mud, but still intact. As we headed down another road we saw a house that was covered up to its first story roof in mud, with the make out of a very mangled car shoved against the fence. Gas lines were shrieking loudly, as well as water pouring out from pipe breaks all around. Helicopters started flying low overhead and wouldn’t stop for days as it started to sink in that they were pulling people from houses and rubble that first responders had no access to.

Overall four creeks had overflowed in Montecito, blanketing a large portion of the city in feet and feet of mud. Hundreds of homes had been destroyed and many more damaged. The path of mud and debris stretched from the mountains all the way into the ocean, miles down the hill.

It wasn’t until about noon that we had heard there had been a loss of life. We had no power, water or access to news, but we also had no idea how bad it was. Two of us managed to make it down to the local grocery store to get water where we encountered our normal shopping center lined with emergency vehicles and mud covered people stepping out of more national guard and SWAT rescue trucks. Standing inside the store, a firefighter walked in asking for coffee. He was covered from head to toe in mud. We asked if he was okay and we could see him fighting back tears as he answered, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Somehow we made it past the police barricades and back to our home. Later that afternoon the magnitude of destruction came into focus. We walked north on our street and turned right to head down to the main intersection. When we turned the corner, I looked back to see our street and back down towards the “intersection” we were walking to, it no longer existed. What used to be a road covered in trees so thick you couldn't see the homes was now an open stream . Houses didn’t sit on their foundations, they sat in scraps strewn along the road, next to boulders the size of refrigerators.

We all evacuated that evening with no power, water or gas and an estimate that it could be a month before things were back up and running. The family I lived with left quickly and I started to panic as the rains picked back up again and I once again shoved an array of times into my truck, tears streaming down my face. I was alone at the house and with no real knowledge as to how the neighborhood was washed away earlier that day, I thought it was going to happen again. All I could think of was that open wasteland where everyone laid down to go to bed and woke up to find themselves and their houses swept off their feet. I was terrified. My brain was no longer thinking rationally.

As I pulled out of the house a song shuffled randomly onto my phone playlist and a rainbow broke out across the sky.

“Let the King of my heart

Be the mountain where I run

The fountain I drink from

Oh, He is my song

Let the King of my heart

Be the shadow where I hide

The ransom for my life

Oh, He is my song

You are good, good, oh

You are good”

I didn’t understand any of this. I stared in my rear view mirror at Montecito still covered in dark grey clouds and a rainbow breaking out on the edge and looked straight ahead to the most glorious and sunny day you can see in January, except for the sky was filled with half a dozen incoming helicopters to rescue our community which now laid in ruins.

I thought of Noah, the floods and the rainbow God used as a promise to never flood the earth again, everything I thought I had known and operated by was uprooted that day and it would be a long process of putting the pieces back together - in a completely new way.

In the coming days we would learn that 23 people had died and two would remain missing until this day, most of them neighbors, only one street over.

Two days later, I learned that the house I had lived in for a short period just a few months prior had been in the “ground-zero” area of the mudslide. It was completely swept away and two of the family members were missing while the other two had been found, but in extremely critical condition. The bodies of the two missing were found a few days later a mile away from where the home once stood.

I have yet to know a moment of more life altering shock and grief that took place than in that moment. My own heart seemed to grow quiet inside of my body, my head seem to detach and I felt as a foreigner living in a life that I didn’t feel belonged to me to live. I wasn’t okay, no one was and no one would be for a while.

In the days and months to come I’ve never known how grief and gratitude can live in such close proximity. My heart was deeply ripped apart, yet I couldn’t help but to cry out to the Lord in thankfulness that I had not been in that house that night. Our community grieved heavily, yet there was an outpouring of gratitude for first responders, search and rescue teams and community members who came together like never before.

In turns out it’s hard, challenging and even extremely scaring for streams to be made in a desert.

I spent two weeks evacuated in a beautiful home on the other side of town which belonged to a community member I didn't even know. We were beyond fortunate and grateful that we had a home and lives to come back to, compared to so many of our neighbors who were experiencing unimaginable loss at the time. Even after we were allowed to return though police barricaded our street for weeks, keeping the public and press out as we tried to get back to normal and the rescue teams continued to pull bodies out one street over.

For the first time in my life I experienced extreme anxiety. We evacuated every time rain came. Friends and people I didn’t even know opened their homes every time an evacuation order came, even allowing me to bring my cat. We spent over 60 days evacuated from fires and rain in the timespan of 5 months.

I’ve come to learn anxiety is an extreme form of prison for a body. It makes everything that is illogical feel so logical. Looking back, the fears I had that kept me awake every night were extreme, but to me, during that time, they were so real. I will never again believe in my head that people with anxiety just need to be tougher or worry less, there is no control over your mind in this state. All that remains is a faithful God who enters into the pain with you and people who are there to pray with you when you can’t even find the words.

As I sit here continuing to write and edit this, it’s been nearly two years. I wrote the first draft of this two weeks after the mudslides right before I returned home from our first evacuation and now it is 2020 (this has been published a year later, in 2021). I’ve spent a lot of time asking God what he wanted me to learn. I’ll be honest, it’s never become clear to me and I think that’s true with a lot of life altering events we face. We come out the other side, stronger, somehow trusting God more and knowing He is good, but not always the why to the exact point of it all.

The best hope I have to give is this:

1. I learned to stop believing the lie that I barely escaped the house that was swept away. Our God is a God who rescues. I spent months thinking of what my life could have or could not have looked like if I had been in that house that night, if God had not moved me. That thinking brought on a downward spiral that spun into nightmares, the inability to sleep and even thoughts that I couldn't continue to live in Santa Barbara anymore.

Here’s the truth though, God had it ordained from before I was born that I would be there, but that He would move me before the mudslides came. I used to think it was a close call, but now I know God saved me from the beginning. That doesn’t answer the question as to why other people had to be there and it never will, but that’s for God to take care of, all I know is the life He has given and continues to allow me to live.

2. I don’t think God has a complete lesson in every trial, perhaps what he’s offering us can be summed up by these collection of words once written by Oswald Chambers, “breaking, bending, molding.” The first time I read those words was about six months after the mudslide and they brought immense comfort to me. They accurately defined what my soul was feeling without tying up a pretty pink bow around the experience.

Let me explain more. I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about metal sculpting, but I have a pretty good idea that a sculptor, like many artists and their art forms, starts to create an art piece by doing just that, breaking, bending, and molding a piece of metal. Trying to make something new out of it. It doesn’t mean the material in its original form was bad or useless, we use straight metal beams to hold up skyscrapers and put together homes. Yet sometimes one thing must be made into something different. That’s how I feel about what God has done in and through me in the last few years, he’s taken me, as a straight piece of metal, and is bending, breaking and molding me into something different, something new.

Two years later (2020) the scars are still real for our community. The last bridge to be washed away in the mudslide opened just a month ago and many areas still sit vacant of homes and landscaping except for the large piles of left over boulders that have been pushed together.

However, people are strong. That’s been one of the silver linings to come out of this disaster: to see the strength of this community. After the mudslide, local businesses, drive ways, street corners and freeway overpasses were covered in array of signs from “Montecito Strong, “Thank you firefighters and first responders” and “We will never forget, but we will overcome”.

Montecito is home to an array of celebrities and wealthy families and they came out in force. People stepped up to cover wages for business workers, may of whom had lost family members, when all the business were shut down for weeks at a time.

People came together and created a now nationally renown non-profit organization, The Bucket Brigade. These people have spent every weekend since the mudslide digging homes and community areas out of the mud and continuing to look for the two community members who have yet to be found.

This year (2020) my work hosted the 2nd anniversary event and as our event manager I got to partner with the city and other organizations to help plan the event. To sit at the table with so many of the heroes I have watched on TV, received emergency alerts from, saw trudge through waste deep mud to rescue others has been the honor of my life thus far. The people I have met through this experience have the most incredible hearts and I am continually amazed in the ways I have seen our county and community continue to serve and take care of each other.

The program this year ended with a children’s choir singing a song a community member had written. They held 23 candles as they walked out of the ceremony singing:

Start from here

Start from where you are

That’s what we all get to choose to do everyday. Many of us have lived or are living hard stories, I now believe God takes us through hard stories so we can help others with their hard stories. We don’t need to tie a pretty pink bow around emotions and concepts such as grief, guilt, healing, moving forward and hope. Many of these I'm still experiencing, trying to define and process for myself and my own mental health and so is the community around me. The best we can do is start, start from here, start from where you are and continue moving forward.

"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."

Psalm 46: 1-7

This is a video I produced for work about a month after the mudslides. It tells the story of one of our professors who experienced the mudslide with his family at a local hotel.

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