The Chaotic Aftermath of Montecito Mudslide Brought to Calm by Mutual Assistance

Community whose water system was ‘entirely ripped apart’ is the recipient in assistance agreement.

by Jim McKay / February 8, 2018

Montecito is an unincorporated community of almost 9,000 residents that faced the wrath of Mother Nature in the form of a catastrophic mudslide that occurred Jan. 9, following the Thomas Fire, the largest in California modern history.

What followed, understandably, was chaos, a search for some of the 21 killed in the mudslides and an initially frantic effort to piece together the community’s water system, which was “entirely ripped apart,” said Montecito Water District’s General Manager, Nick Turner. 

“We have emergency plans, but when you’re facing one of the largest catastrophes that Montecito has ever experienced, that plan is of some assistance, but in reality, you use it as a model and figure things out as you move forward.”

But there was no moving forward without neighbors and mutual assistance. Santa Barbara, a neighbor and larger community, was quick to respond. Initially, there was a need to plan and assess damage — and to get help.

Some of the help came from the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN), a mutual assistance agency that promotes emergency preparedness, planning and assistance to public and private waste and wastewater facilities. The agency used its network to acquire the resources needed in Montecito, which were many.

The damage from the mudslide, besides the loss of life, included 18 water main breaks, about 23 decapitated fire hydrants, buried homes, businesses and roads and services. Santa Barbara immediately sent over 65 people to help, and Turner and Santa Barbara Water Systems Manager Cathy Taylor began trying to coordinate their efforts and the multiple tasks that needed to be accomplished. They contacted Kelly Hubbard, regional co-chair of CalWARN.

“She said, ‘Give me your wish list,’” Taylor said of Hubbard. “They gave her a detailed list down to the bolts they needed, and Kelly collected all the items within six hours.”

“They contacted me initially asking for 1,400 linear feet of pipe,” Hubbard said. “It was very specific pipe for treatment and not a size used by most anymore. I worked on contacting agencies across the Southern Region and found some pipe and Cathy and Nick continued to work their own resources.”

CalWARN members can contact one another and request aid and resources through the CalWARN site. Unlike a mutual aid pact, the CalWARN mutual assistance agreement simply covers liabilities but doesn’t specifically reimburse. “It’s up to the parties as to if it will be done as neighbor helping neighbor,” Hubbard said. “Most of the time, agencies end up getting reimbursed through FEMA.”

Hubbard said the agency encourages agencies to contact one another during smaller incidents but coordinate through the regional coordinator in larger incidents, like this one.

The community’s needs early on were many and the response was multifaced. They needed physical resources like backhoes and specific pipe. They needed contractors and engineers and search and rescue.

“There was a mass response, going out and finding running water, shutting things down and trying to work within a coordinated effort in a system you don’t know, working around first responders, people looking for bodies on roads completely wiped out,” Taylor said.

Impassible roads complicated the tasks and as operators of backhoes went to work on uncovering some of the buried services, they were interrupted to a gruesome request: “Can we borrow the backhoe to search for bodies?”

“It was crazy,” Taylor said.