November 24, 2023
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Dubroff: Shock and awe as mudslides bury Montecito


Pacific Coast Business Times Editor and Chairman Henry Dubroff rides in the back of a military truck removing evacuees from Montecito on Jan. 9.

Updated at 1:50 p.m. Jan. 12:

I was awakened at 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 9 by a lightning strike and a loud clap of thunder, followed by the sound of a transformer exploding nearby.

The lights flickered but stayed on. Suddenly there was a bright light to the north and east of my little cottage in Montecito. Too early for the sun, I surmised it was a home burning somewhere across Highway 192. Later I would see a burn victim airlifted by helicopter.

The power went out. A fire truck raced up San Ysidro Road and soon thereafter the light in the sky began to dim. By 4:45 a.m. the fire was clearly under control and I felt out of danger. I went to sleep and woke up around 6.30 a.m.

Fishing out an old combination flashlight/FM radio, I got KCLU tuned in and learned of the mudslides and closing of Highway 101. Still feeling safe — with hot water and gas heat working — I showered, dressed and hopped into the car.

About a half mile into my drive, near the corner of Hot Springs and School House Road, I got my first glimpse of disaster. Shattered electric poles had strewn power lines everywhere. An earthmover was removing huge pieces of trees and big rocks.

A passerby mentioned that three homes had been destroyed in that one slide, one that would devastate part of Coast Village Road and leave a trail of cars, boats, trailers and bodies all the way to the ocean.

Heading north to Route 192, I got more bad news. The back way over to Santa Barbara — a route I confess I’ve never really figured out — was closed due to an undermined bridge and downed power lines.

I drove to the Montecito upper village and got another shock. An area that just weeks ago had been evacuated due to fire danger was all but deserted. Mudslides covered the intersection of San Ysidro Road and Highway 192. An earth moving operation was visible to the east, where another large slide had taken place.

I drove down San Ysidro and did a double take.  A helicopter was parked on the ball field at Montecito Union School. Out from the school came a handful of emergency medical workers and a stretcher. They hustled through the light rain and wheeled the stretcher up to the waiting helicopter. There was a pause, then the engines revved up and the helicopter took off.

I drove down to Highway 101 confident that one of two shore routes would be available even if the freeway was closed. Both were covered with mudslides.

I was trapped. I walked to a Highway 101 bridge and saw deep pools of water and debris fields.  Rows of
semi-trailers were parked on the freeway.

At the All Saints By the Sea Episcopal Church near Miramar Beach, a voice cried out “Hey Henry.” It was Syd Walker, a financial adviser I’ve known for many years. He told me where I could find hot tea and a potato chip or two and I talked to several doctors and firefighters about options.

Santa Barbara Fire Capt. Gilbert Cash said that military trucks were arriving to evacuate us to the Montecito Vons, driving through a deep slide area on Jameson Lane.

“The town will never be the same,” he said.

Families, kids and dogs piled into the first two trucks. I decided to wait for the next trip and drove home to grab my cholesterol medicine and a change of clothing. I parked my car in the church parking lot with a note that said “evacuated” on the dashboard.

The truck was packed with people and dogs. Many had nothing. One family with young kids had seen their dog swept away in the deluge. There were cars strewn about like soda fountain straws and deep, deep mud slapped against the truck’s huge tires.

I got out my iPhone and snapped a photo just at the Olive Mill intersection, once a fancy shopping district and home to Lucky’s. Now it was a wasteland of mud.

Suddenly, we were out of danger. For a couple of blocks the shuttered shops looked normal and very quiet — as if nothing was amiss. As we drove into the Starbucks parking lot, we were swarmed by media and first responders.

A bus took some folks to shelter at Santa Barbara City College but I started walking. A woman who recognized me from the truck got her friends to stop and give me a lift to Milpas Street. From there it was an easy Uber to the office.

It was a terrible morning and yet I counted myself among the lucky ones. For the victims, death came suddenly, in the dark, with no warning

• Contact Henry Dubroff at