Making sense of what happened to Montecito

Note the date on this map:

That was more than a month before huge rains revised to red the colors in the mountains above Montecito. The LA Times also ran a story a week before last, warning about debris flows, which are like mud slides, but with lots of rocks.

When rains locals called “biblical” hit in the darkest hours last Tuesday morning, debris flows gooped down the mountainside canyons that feed  creeks that weave downhill across Montecito, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there. At last count twenty people were dead and another three missing.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, was fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. Some victims were friends of friends. It’s pretty damn awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is

reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So let’s start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 747 Indian Lane
  6. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  7. 590 Meadowood Lane
  8. 830 Rockbridge Road
  9. 800 Rockbridge Road
  10. 790 Rockbridge Road
  11. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  12. 1261 East Valley Road
  13. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  14. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  15. 1254 East Valley Drive
  16. 1255 East Valley Road
  17. 1247 East Valley Road A
  18. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  19. 1231 East Valley Road A
  20. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  22. 1221 East Valley Road A
  23. 1221 East Valley Road B
  24. 369 Hot Springs Road
  25. 341 Hot Springs Road
  26. 355 Hot Springs Road
  27. 340 Hot Springs Road
  28. 319 Hot Springs Road
  29. 325 Olive Mill Road
  30. 285 Olive Mill Road
  31. 275 Olive Mill Road
  32. 325 Olive Mill Road
  33. 220 Olive Mill Road
  34. 200 Olive Mill Road
  35. 275 Olive Mill Road
  36. 180 Olive Mill Road
  37. 170 Olive Mill Road
  38. 144 Olive Mill Road
  39. 137 Olive Mill Road
  40. 139 Olive Mill Road
  41. 127 Olive Mill Road
  42. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  43. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  44. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  45. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  46. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  47. 82 Olive Mill Road
  48. 1308 Danielson Road
  49. 81 Depot Road
  50. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek, some are damaged, but none destroyed.
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 900 San Ysidro Lane C
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  14. 805 West Park Lane B
  15. 799 East Mountain Drive
  16. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  17. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  18. 771 Via Manana Road
  19. 899 El Bosque Road
  20. 771 Via Manana Road
  21. 898 El Bosque Road
  22. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  23. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  24. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  25. 680 Randall Road
  26. 670 Randall Road
  27. 660 Randall Road
  28. 650 Randall Road
  29. 640 Randall Road
  30. 630 Randall Road
  31. 619 Randall Road
  32. 1685 East Valley Road A
  33. 1685 East Valley Road B
  34. 1685 East Valley Road C
  35. 1696 East Valley Road
  36. 1760 Valley Road A
  37. 1725 Valley Road A
  38. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  39. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  40. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  41. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  42. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  43. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  44. 1705 East Valley Road A
  45. 1705 East Valley Road B
  46. 1705 East Valley Road C
  47. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  48. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  49. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  50. 1707 East Valley Road A
  51. 1685 East Valley Road C
  52. 1709 East Valley Road
  53. 1709 East Valley Road B
  54. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  55. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  56. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  57. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  58. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  59. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  60. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  61. 1715 East Valley Road A
  62. 1715 East Valley Road B
  63. 1719 East Valley Road
  64. 1721 East Valley Road A
  65. 1721 East Valley Road B
  66. 1721 East Valley Road C
  67. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  68. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  69. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  70. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  71. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  72. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  73. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  74. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  75. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  76. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  77. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  78. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  79. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 2075 Alisos Drive
  6. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  4. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the list above, one building is marked as destroyed on Craven Lane, and ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 among the destroyed alone.

Here’s one view of what happened to one house which may be among those not marked red:

What we see here is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up. This same pattern accounts for California.

Hover above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Dial back five million years and it won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. California’s whole landscape has formed and reformed only in the last few minutes of geologic time, and is among the most provisional in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself constantly, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among its most casual methods.

But we do fight nature. John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature contains a chapter that began as a pair of essays in the New Yorker. The first is Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours last Tuesday morning.

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks. Maybe longer. There are too many broken water and gas pipes, too many downed electric and communication lines, too many truckloads (I heard 20,000 dump trucks) of fresh landscape to remove, too many roads to exhume and repair.

In other words, Montecito is now a quarry.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour on Thursday when we head home from Los Angeles.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:


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