California Forum

Why were so many left in the path of Montecito’s mudslides?

The reports out of Santa Barbara County have been heartbreaking and frightening: people swept to their deaths by an avalanche of muck and runoff. Boulders rolling through the night, crushing houses and cars.

Like the record fire season that preceded this week’s lethal mudslides, the worst case scenario has been far, far worse than expected. And far harder to manage: Once again, tens of thousands of people were in harm’s way well past the point at which they should have been moved to safety. It is not too soon to ask why.

As the death toll hit 17, Santa Barbara County officials said their cellphone emergency alerts failed to reach those in danger until nearly 4 a.m., after the hills around Montecito – denuded by the largest wildfire in recorded state history and flooded by rainfall – had already begun to collapse.

Californians understand that winter rains can wreak havoc on the scorched earth left by autumn wildfires. As clouds gathered, local authorities had issued warnings on news outlets, community emails, the county website and social media. On Sunday, some 30,000 people in areas near where the Thomas Fire had burned were either ordered or given a choice to evacuate.

But as with the wine country fires, the sheer speed of the cataclysm appears to have overwhelmed planning that might have been adequate in past disasters. Survivors report confusion over which evacuation zones were mandatory and which weren’t. In areas given a choice, disaster fatigue from the Thomas Fire in December prompted many to stay put and await instructions.

Many were unaware of their peril. Local officials told the Los Angeles Times they issued a cellphone alert at 2:46 a.m., shortly after one went out from the National Weather Service, but only people who had opted in got it. It wasn’t until 3:50 a.m. that the county sent a bulletin through a federal wireless emergency alert system – a push alert, similar to an Amber Alert, that buzzes an area’s cellphones. By then, the earth had begun to move.

Authorities say even the federal system doesn’t effectively target. Too broad an alert and recipients might gridlock the roads, slowing emergency responders, or decide the risk had been overstated and not take the warning seriously next time. Emergency managers in Sonoma County offered a similar rationale after the wine country fires.

The Federal Communications Commission has announced it will take the targeting issue up at its January meeting, but that’s just one issue. California’s system in general is a county-by-county, and in some cases, phone-by-phone patchwork.

“We have a 21st century problem we’re trying to solve with 20th century technology,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. McGuire’s Senate Bill 833, introduced with Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would set statewide protocols for emergency alerts, and require every county to adopt compatible systems.

It’s a start. So is the $11.5 million in the budget proposal Gov. Jerry Brown released Wednesday to modernize the state’s 911 system. So is a bill by Santa Barbara Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblywoman Monique Limón to require multilingual emergency communications.

But it’s only a start. Climate change isn’t making us safer. We must update our worst-case-scenario responses, and people must all be prepared to get out of harm’s way.

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