I’m so sorry, but must pause the reading recap, slip a bookmark in it until next week.
Because this is a week of grieving in my community, and to the extent that a blog is a sort of ship’s log, there is an obligation to record the events that shape the journey. Even when the journey is a sad one.
(Santa Barbara News-Press photo):
Who could have known that for bucolic Santa Barbara, the real tragedy was to be not the fire, but the flood? That a fiercely dedicated army of firefighters would save Montecito only to see it drown in mud a few weeks later?
By now you’ve probably seen a hundred shots of Oprah in her wading boots, surveying the damage to her Montecito mansion.
Part of the long-time fascination with Montecito is its roster of celebrity residents. People who could afford to live anywhere in the world often choose to live in Montecito. Yes, Oprah, of course; I waited next to her for coffee once at Pierre Lafond, the iconic emporium in Montecito’s upper village. I also glanced up one time to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus rifling through the sale rack next to me at a dress shop. Another day, I had a nice chat with actor Malcolm McDowell in a local antique store. Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, etc. etc. etc. live there. As do many people whose names you would not recognize, people who have simply had the good fortune to live in an exquisite setting betwixt the mountains and the sea.
The rains came Monday night. And as a freakishly intense storm bore down over the recently-charred mountainside, it triggered a debris flow that tore ferociously down the canyons into the heart of Montecito, just blocks from the chic little shops and restaurants on Coast Village Road. There were evacuation warnings, but the epicenter of the destruction was an area under only a voluntary rather than mandatory order. And there was evacuation fatigue. People had already been away from their homes for days or weeks during the fire. The worst was over, they thought.
They were wrong. The emergency alerts didn’t go out until after the mudslide had begun, and then it was too late. In the dead of night, more than half an inch of rain fell in just five minutes over the burn area. The torrent swept down Montecito Creek carrying boulders the size of automobiles. Crashing trees were grotesquely deployed as battering rams, crushing everything in the mile-wide torrent of mud and debris.
Here is a photo by Greg Villeneuve of what looks like a river, but is actually Highway 101, the only artery between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles:
And here is a Noozhawk photo of a damaged home. It is by no means the worst of what occurred:
Debris flow is a new and wholly unwelcome addition to my vocabulary. For the definitive description of it, see John McPhee’s October, 1988 New Yorker piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”. Therein, he provides a description that became a prophecy for what happened here this week: “In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. 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.”
And in that flow last Monday night, good people died. At this writing, the death toll stands at 18; the number of missing has been mercifully revised downward to 5. It has been, at least for me, a faith-testing catastrophe.
In his excellent biography of Holocaust hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxes wrote that Bonhoeffer’s mostly secular family gave a nod to their Christian heritage each year when his mother read Psalm 90 aloud as a New Year’s Eve tradition. I made a stab at memorizing the psalm awhile back and failed miserably, but one remnant of it has stayed with me and has haunted me this week:
“He doth sweep men away; they are like a dream…”
That dream became a nightmare this week as so many were literally swept away.
(Montecito Inn photo by Gary Goldberg)
We don’t live in Montecito, so we were spared the destruction. But we are not spared the grief. Those who survived are without power or potable water. It will take months, or more likely years, until there is any semblance of normalcy. Our hearts go out to everyone there who is on this sad journey.
“Return, O Lord! How long?
Have mercy on thy servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.”
– Psalm 90, verses 13-15