California Forum

My disaster relief agency is based near Montecito. Now disaster has hit home.

In a Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo, emergency workers rescue a 14-year-old girl, right, after she was trapped inside a home destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018. Drenching rain sent mud roaring down the hillsides of Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, killing at least five people, carrying houses off their foundations, snapping telephone poles and wrapping vehicles around trees, the authorities said.
In a Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo, emergency workers rescue a 14-year-old girl, right, after she was trapped inside a home destroyed by a mudslide in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018. Drenching rain sent mud roaring down the hillsides of Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, killing at least five people, carrying houses off their foundations, snapping telephone poles and wrapping vehicles around trees, the authorities said. NYT

Because the nonprofit humanitarian-aid organization I work for specializes in providing medical assistance to people in need – and works in every U.S. state and territory and 80 countries – the last six months have been busy.

The series of biggest-ever hurricanes were interspersed with the biggest-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico (followed by another smaller-scale but more damaging Mexico quake), and followed in turn by the most deadly wildfires in California history in Sonoma, and a series of Southern California fires that included the largest-ever-by-size. Our organization was asked to help in each situation, and we have, which is why I have been in each place, multiple times, over the past six months.

At 3:30 a.m. with rain falling hard around our Montecito home as I was checking downspouts, I heard an earthly rumbling sound, but at an unearthly amplified volume, and realized that I was in a moment of the type whose immediate aftermath I was familiar.

My familiarity with emergency situations and friendship with those whose sustained efforts in their aftermath our organization supports has provided a rare privilege in life. I’ve encountered far more poignant examples of leadership, selflessness, brilliance, courage, and compassion than I would have ever found had that been a conscious effort, which it hasn’t.

Unfortunately, none of that mattered much early Tuesday morning, when at 3:30 a.m. with rain falling hard around our Montecito home as I was checking downspouts, I heard an earthly rumbling sound, but at an unearthly amplified volume, and realized that I was in a moment of the type whose immediate aftermath I was familiar.

I’ve seen plenty of cars swept away in hurricane and flooded areas, and even large ships lodged on buildings miles inland after tsunamis in Sendai and Banda Aceh and Phuket.

But, until that moment, I’d never seen anything like that little street of 1950s California ranch houses, all stick-built in the postwar boom by some developer who saw a cow pasture adjacent to Highway 101 and envisioned “Montecito Oaks.” Then the cars started floating away. And trees, roofs, furniture, boulders and mud followed in the ash-blackened water-based liquid of natural and manufactured detritus.

Our family was lucky. We got to high ground and got the ladders out to get on the roof if needed, since leaving in the dark through the flowing muck wasn’t an option.

My neighbors within 100 feet included a firefighter captain and her ER doc husband, a guy who set the world record for rowing a boat across the Atlantic, a physician and his nurse wife, an engineer serial inventor and his wife who applies her doctorate to running an early childhood center affordable co-op – all with their children at home. They all checked in and signaled, offering help and tools in the dark while scrambling to get out of the flow.

Daybreak revealed the heartbreaking truth that not everyone had been so lucky. None of us knew, for example, that one person killed in the disaster lay entombed in the mud mere feet from where we stood.

I’ve been in enough places to know that all disasters are local. Scorekeeping magnitude and tallying losses is what we always do, and it’s important for many reasons, including preventing more of them.

But, I’ve also learned that disasters and emergencies are always personal, too. No scale exists to gauge tragedy or sense of loss that any person encounters, regardless of where they live, their financial or personal circumstances, or whether it was an isolated event or one that thousands experienced simultaneously.

This last week reinforced what I and anyone reading this already knows personally from their own lives. My background in many of the world’s most high-profile emergencies has provided a lot of context and expertise of what works to mitigate and respond.

But it provides no more insight or value about the astounding, unique qualities that distinguish people from other species, including courage, selflessness, and empathy for those who experience tragedy. I happen to see it in a lot of places and can attest without question, it’s universal. But you already knew that.

I can only add that if I ever forget that, I will find something else to do.

Thomas Tighe is CEO and President of Direct Relief. Reach him at @DirectRelief.

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