Special Weather Statement

Why some didn't heed evacuation warnings ahead of deadly Montecito mudslides

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 18, 2018, 9:04:47 PM EST

In the days following the deadly winter storm that caused mudslides and flash floods in Southern California, videos surfaced of people who experienced the disaster firsthand.

A car appeared to be chased down a hill by a thick mudslide in one video and a seemingly sudden flash flood filled an occupied house in another video.

These videos shocked viewers. It left many viewers wondering why these people did not evacuate from these potentially deadly situations.

Flash floods and mudslides can appear to happen really quickly. This tends to be the case in any real flow-type situation, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark.

"But these didn’t come out of nowhere, everyone knew there was potential for bad mudslides. We talked about it for days," Clark said.

CA Mudslides AP

A firefighter stands on the roof of a house submerged in mud and rocks Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

AccuWeather predicted back in early November that wildfire-scorched areas of California would face an elevated risk for flooding and mudslides this winter.

Meteorologists, emergency management groups and government officials projected these dangerous events and ordered evacuations throughout the region.

"It was a particularly bad situation because the fire was so recent and so widespread. It was in an extremely hilly area that covered hundreds of thousands of acres. You drop a lot of water on that and all that soil is going to run off as moving any type of water whether it has mud or just a flash flood," Clark said.

Flash floods can be very powerful as water flows rapidly. When mud is added into the water, it becomes even heavier and it can cause even more damage.

"Mud is extremely powerful because it is heavy. It doesn’t just knock things over. For example, it didn’t just knock trees over, it uprooted them, it uplifted them out of the ground and carried them down. In some cases, it carried large vehicles for miles," Clark said.

At least 20 people have died and three remain actively missing as a result of the mudslides and floods that devastated Southern California, according to a Santa Barbara County Press Release on Jan. 15.

The mudslides occurred early on Tuesday, Jan. 9, destroying an estimated 115 homes and damaging hundreds of others, a Cal Fire update said.

The deadly effects of the mudslides and flooding have led many to scrutinize the public safety preparations and the public response to the warnings. There are numerous reasons for why people did not heed evacuations.

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The difference between mandatory and voluntary evacuations

While a large portion of Montecito was placed under a mandatory evacuation order, around 7,000 residents closest to the Thomas Fire burn scar, the rest of the community was under a voluntary evacuation warning. Approximately 23,000 people lived in the voluntary area.

Mandatory evacuations orders in disaster situations inform residents of imminent, life-threatening danger. They’re told in no uncertain terms to leave the area straightaway. Emergency management officials put maximum emphasis on encouraging evacuations.

In the area of mandatory evacuations in Santa Barbara County, about 60 personnel from the Santa Barbara’s Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue conducted door-to-door notifications the day before the storm on Jan. 8.

Meanwhile, voluntary evacuation warnings advise residents to pack their belongings, stay on high alert and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

"People in these areas should stay alert to changing conditions and be prepared to leave immediately at your own discretion if the situation worsens," the county said in a statement.

Evacuations for Mud

Evacuations were issued for areas below the Thomas, Whittier, Sherpa and Rey Fire Burn Areas beginning at 12 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 8 due to an approaching winter storm. (Santa Barbara County)

Officials said that generally when mandatory evacuation orders are issued, there is an imminent threat to life or property. For areas with voluntary warnings, the threat still exists but it is in the near future.

“This isn’t an exact science in terms of defining where [a mudslide] is going to happen,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said in a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 9. “A lot depends on Mother Nature... [This was] a best-guess estimate of where things were going to occur, and as it turns out, they were exactly right that this was going to hit.”

Residents in voluntary evacuation zones did not feel pressure to evacuate

Many residents in areas of voluntary evacuations did not follow evacuation requests.

Only about 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered to evacuate and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary, according to AP News.

For example, elderly couple Jim and Alice Mitchell had not left their home because they were not under a mandatory order, their daughter, Kelly Weimer said to AP News on Jan. 10.

However, their house and nearly every home on their block were destroyed or swept away by the flash floods that raged through their neighborhood. The Mitchell's home on Hot Springs Road was completely gone.

"They were in a voluntary evacuation area, so they figured they were OK. They weren't concerned. It's not like anybody came around and told them to leave," Weimer said to AP News.

The couple was later confirmed among the dead, according to KSBY News.

The Mitchells were not alone in this type of situation. Many homes were destroyed and a number of people were killed by debris flows in the voluntary evacuation zone.

“There clearly were areas that were damaged that were outside of the evacuation area,” said state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents the region and last week authored a bill to improve disaster alert systems, said to Reuters. “But trying to figure out where these floods are going to happen really is just good guessing. It’s an art, not a science.”

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"Evacuation fatigue" following the Thomas Fire

The Mitchells had evacuated just last month because of the threat of wildfires racing through the region. They had moved back home about a week ago. They chose not to leave this time, Megan Mitchell said to NBC News.

Like the Mitchells, many of these communities were also under evacuation orders during the wildfires that affected the region just weeks prior to the recent mudslide and flooding event.

Marco Farrell and his parents evacuated their home and remained away for more than a week when when they were under wildfire threat last month.

However, this time around, a voluntary evacuation order was issued for their area and the family discussed leaving but decided to ride it out, according to the AP News article.

"There was evacuation fatigue from the fire," Farrell said. "I would have preferred for them to leave and in hindsight we should have left. I don't know how I got lulled."

Experts stress importance of following evacuation orders

Meteorologists and emergency management officials stress the importance of following evacuation orders and paying attention to watches and warnings during natural disasters.

“Following orders is a matter of life or death. It’s not just convenience, and safety sometimes is inconvenient,” FEMA Public Affairs Officer Brandi Richard said. “It is better to be grateful that you evacuated than to be in a dangerous situation.”

In cases of natural disasters, it is better to take precautionary measures for safety.

"In the case of the fires or this mudslide situation, what do you have to gain from not leaving? If your house is going to survive the fire or mudslide, it’s going to survive with you there or not," Clark said.

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