On January 9, 2018 around 3:30 a.m., a catastrophic debris flow ripped through Montecito, sending a wall of boulders, trees and mud barreling down from the foothills, destroying buildings and flooding the 101 freeway on its way to the ocean. The area was still recovering from the Thomas Fire, which left the hills unable to withstand the storm that brought a record half inch of rain in only five minutes. The debris flow caused the deaths of 23 people, destroyed 127 single-family homes, and damaged 294 single-family residences.
Many VOAD member organizations provided support to first responders during the cleanup and search-and-rescue operations, and continued to offer services to people affected by the disaster.
The American Red Cross Pacific Coast Chapter opened an emergency shelter at Earl Warren Showgrounds where evacuees could obtain food and water provided by Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, personal needs items (medications, clothing, hygiene supplies), mental and physical health care, clean up kits, cleanup supplies (shovels, sifters, gloves, masks), case work and referrals. Between the Thomas Fire and debris flow, the Red Cross served 363 clients in Santa Barbara County, deployed 2,088 volunteers and provided $457,500 in cash aid.
Easy Lift, which provides specialized, wheelchair-accessible transportation to those in need of transportation services, helped transport evacuees to and between shelters. Between December 2017 and March 2018, Easy Lift transported 500 community members, including the entirety of the Casa Dorinda senior residence, whom they returned home three weeks later. During this time, the organization had an officer escort to transport two individuals from Carpinteria to Camarillo for daily dialysis treatments. In addition to serving people with special mobility needs, Easy Lift provided a shuttle to the Local Assistance Center of the Emergency Operations Center, and later to volunteers participating with The Bucket Brigade through Habitat for Humanity.
Santa Barbara Equine Assistance & Evacuation Team helped transport large animals to Earl Warren Show Grounds, including a 30-year-old horse the team rescued from a home in the disaster zone. During each of the four storm-related evacuations, the team transported, sheltered, fed and washed up to 250 animals.
Direct Relief, an international disaster recovery organization based in Goleta, turned its focus homeward during the Thomas Fire and debris flow aftermath. To aid in the search and rescue operation, Direct Relief donated specialized vehicles and equipment to the Montecito, Santa Barbara County, and Santa Barbara City Fire Departments, and Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue. They also donated $20,000 to purchase additional extreme terrain equipment, including water rescue gear, safety lights and a rope system. In collaboration with Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, Direct Relief offered free TDAP vaccines to individuals exposed to the flood water, including first responders, cleanup workers and residents. To aid in long-term recovery, the organization established the 1/9 Victims Fund with an initial $500,000, and eventually distributed $1 million to individuals impacted by the debris flow. In addition, Direct Relief donated $75,000 to the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, $100,000 to Santa Barbara Support Network, $35,000 to Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, $100,000 to UndocuFund, and $100,000 to the Foundation for Santa Barbara High School for affected families.
Doctors Without Walls also took part in the recovery by providing first aid Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade volunteers both in the field and at the Kick Ash Bash.
United Way of Santa Barbara County partnered with United Way of Ventura County to establish the United Way Thomas Fire & Flood Fund. By July 30, 2018, the United Way had raised more than $4.5 million to aid in the financial recovery of next of kin to those who died in the debris flow, county residents who lost their homes and/or vehicles during the fire or debris flow, and those who lost wages due to disaster-related business closures. The fund also provided grants to local nonprofit organizations who provided aid during the Thomas Fire and debris flow evacuations and recovery. United Way of Santa Barbara County worked with VOAD to award grants to member organizations, including Easy Lift, which received $16,000 to recover money spent on transportation.
Family Services Agency, a human service organization whose mission includes “helping to create and preserve a healthy community,” was the lead case manager for United Way of Santa Barbara County’s aid applicants. Their casework also included referrals to other community resources, and a partnership with 805UndocuFund to determine which individuals would be better served by Family Service Agency. The organization was also able to provide grocery gift cards and direct financial assistance to 45 individuals and families. The organization also offered mental health services, including in-classroom counseling at Cleveland Elementary School, Cold Springs School and Santa Barbara High School; individual and family counseling; and a support group for adults. Between the Thomas Fire and debris flow, Family Service Agency served 499 individuals and families, many of whom were affected by both disasters.
The debris flow continues to affect residents of Santa Barbara County, especially those who live and work in Montecito. VOAD is thankful for its member organizations who were active during the emergency and continue to help with the recovery.