It’s always hard to write about home. No matter how much or how well you write, it always feels like there’s something lacking, especially when it’s about tragedy striking just down the street. There’s an enormity to it, a sense of personal fear, confusion, loss and sadness that’s almost impossible to describe. But, I feel I owe it to my neighbors, my community and especially to all the people who have been hurt and killed over the last month to at least try.
I’m from Montecito, CA, a place which many of you probably had not heard of before today, unless it was in conjunction with names like Oprah or Ellen. After last night, though, you might recognize it as the community that was devastated by massive mud slides that claimed at least 13 lives and countless homes.
First, I need to say that I am one of the unbelievably lucky ones. My family, friends and loved ones are all safe (as far as I know at this time) and my home is undamaged. I know very well that this is far more than can be said for thousands of people in my community and in the neighboring towns, like Ventura and Carpinteria. I am so unbelievably grateful for this position, and I acknowledge fully that I cannot begin to understand what it is like to be a firsthand victim to these tragedies, or to lose a loved one as many did last night. My heart and prayers go out to everybody who has suffered over this last month, and my enormous gratitude and respect goes out to all the first responders and people who opened your homes and hearts. Please feel free to email me (address below) if you would like to share your story.
As for my story, my home in Montecito was evacuated during the Thomas fire just a few weeks ago. Many of you may know that the Thomas fire — the largest fire in California history — passed through the hills above Montecito, completely charring acres and acres of mountain terrain. Luckily, the firefighters prevented that fire from spreading into most of Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, nobody could protect our community from Pacific Storm Nikita.
Those acres and acres of charred mountain landscape above Montecito were known to be prime mudslide terrain. The community had been warned and prepared for flash floods, strong winds and thunderstorms, but what actually happened was beyond belief. From the mountains, all the way down and past the US 101 freeway (a distance of several miles,) mudslides absolutely destroyed house after house and neighborhood after neighborhood. Most tragically of all, along with all the houses and memories, this tragedy also claimed 13 lives (at the time of writing.)
I woke up today to frantic calls from friends worried that I would be among those 13. I knew that Montecito was going to be hit hard by this storm, but I had never even imagined that it would lead to this kind of destruction, let alone death. I had left Montecito to stay in LA for the week, so I watched from my computer as crews dug through my neighborhood, searching for my neighbors. I write this line having just received a text from a close friend explaining that one of his family friends was swept from his house last night and was found dead this morning. I still can’t quite believe the reality of this situation... That our tiny section of the world would be positioned so terribly for this kind of tragedy.
Still, my intention with this piece was not so much to tell my story of this tragedy, but rather to try to find some small ray of hope in my own way that I might be able to share with my community. And, honestly, in pursuit of that, the one word that keeps popping into my head is community, itself. When most people think of Santa Barbara and Montecito, they think of pristine beaches, gorgeous homes and swaying palm trees, but today we’ve shown the world that we are so much more than just beautiful. We are strong and we are united, and that makes us beautiful.
One of the stories that really stuck with me through all this was about a man who — after being forced from his own house by mudslides, and shivering in the pouring rain all night — waded through the mud, sewage and who knows what to help a neighbor whose leg had been broken overnight, and carried him to a clearing where the emergency rescuers could help him. I think that’s not just an incredible story of courage and selflessness, but also an excellent image for the community of Santa Barbara today. Even when it’s hard, this community doesn’t give up, we stand up and support one-another. You can see it everywhere from the first responders out there working tirelessly, to the volunteers giving aid and shelter, to the friends and family calling nonstop to offer support. These beautiful moments of heroism in the face of tragedy are what make it all bearable, and remind me that this is not just the end of something, but the beginning of something better.
To all the people who are in recovery after this trauma, please know that you have supporters out here who are here for you. It’s so important to take the time to heal, rebuild and process, and we are happy to help you however we best can. Please know that I — at least — am sending you my prayers and best thoughts in this incredibly tough time.
Today, our community is underwater, but tomorrow we will rise again — stronger than ever.