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Montecito: A paradise lost after fire and storms




A portion of a house came to rest in a tree along Montecito Creek at East Valley Road in Montecito after flooding and a debris flow Dec. 8. The home was built in 1914 by the resident's grandfather back when he was one of the original occupants of an area known as Spanish Town.
A portion of a house came to rest in a tree along Montecito Creek at East Valley Road in Montecito after flooding and a debris flow Dec. 8. The home was built in 1914 by the resident's grandfather back when he was one of the original occupants of an area known as Spanish Town.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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When he first arrived in Montecito in 1970, Bob Ludwick thought he'd found a California paradise.

"It's delightful," Ludwick said of the community. Ludwick has an active hand in the area as the volunteer president of the Coast Village Association, which advocates for the community and its businesses.  

For 47 years, Ludwick and his family have enjoyed Montecito for its vistas and atmosphere in the county of Santa Barbara. "It really was a very sleepy well-kept secret."

But things have changed in the last few months. In December, the Thomas fire blazed through the area. And this week, a storm triggered a mudslide that has killed at least 17 people and destroyed local homes and facilities.

"There's nothing like it in the history of Santa Barbara," Ludwick said. "The only thing that's closest is the 1925 earthquake that leveled all of downtown Santa Barbara, which is about four miles away from us."

For Ludwick and his fellow Montecito community members, the back-to-back disasters and the subsequent damage have been a lot to process. Utilities have been all but shut off. Roughly 80 local businesses, most of which represented the livelihood of their owners, have been affected. Every problem seems to lead to another.

"It hasn't stopped," Ludwick said. "I think of it like somebody who's had a serious injury abdominally and, about eight days later, you find out that your spleen ruptured. It takes a long time for the impacts to surface themselves."

Ludwick also has also had to mourn a close personal friend who died in the mudslides. 

"He was swept away from an area that was not in the mandatory evacuation zone," Ludwick said. "His home is gone. He, true to form, gave his life trying to save his kids. That is really a sad tragedy for someone I've known my entire adult life. I expect to know a good portion of the people who have perished."

But Ludwick and his neighbors are trying to find the best way to help out those around them. He anticipates that they will come together in this difficult time, but he doesn't expect Montecito to be a paradise again for a long time.

"I think a decade or more will be required to restore Montecito to whatever glory it once had," Ludwick said.

"I'm personally optimistic because that's my nature. But I'm also a realist ... we really aren't going to be able to return to business as normal. I don't see that happening."