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First emergency alert warning sent at least an hour before mudslides hit Montecito

A home is surrounded by mud and debris caused by a massive mudflow in Montecito, California, Jan. 10, 2018.
A home is surrounded by mud and debris caused by a massive mudflow in Montecito, California, Jan. 10, 2018.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

An hour before the first reports of a catastrophic mudslide in Montecito early Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service sent a flash flood warning to the cellphones of more than 17,000 people in the area, officials said Thursday.

Hydrologist Jayme Laber was in the NWS's Oxnard office at the time and recalled seeing a wall of heavy rain approaching the area scorched by the Thomas Fire less than a month earlier.

"That was a really rare rainfall. That was something you’d typically see maybe once in 200 years," he said.

The storm dropped nearly an inch of rain in just fifteen minutes, well exceeding the amount of precipitation needed to trigger a flash flood warning. Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NWS staff sent Amber alert-style push warnings to an estimated 17,486 people at 2:32 a.m., said Eric Boldt, a warning coordination meteorologist.

https://twitter.com/NWSFlashFlood/status/950680582123675650

An hour later, emergency officials with Santa Barbara County reported they started receiving calls about torrents to debris and mud coursing through residential streets. 

Santa Barbara County emergency officials have come under scrutiny for not sending their own alert until 3:50 a.m.

The mudslides went onto to kill at least 17 people and destroyed or damaged more than 525  structures.

Many Californians in the area hit hardest by this week's deadly mudslides did not heed warnings for hours and days by emergency officials encouraging them to evacuate their homes.

The alert sent by Santa Barbara County officials to all those in mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas went out around 3:50 a.m. Tuesday because of deteriorating conditions, Rob Lewin, the county's emergency management director said Thursday. 

There has been no outpouring of complaints from people that wireless warnings should have been sent out earlier, and residents of affected areas who have spoken with The Associated Press said they knew they lived in evacuation areas but chose not to leave.

The first slides tore through Montecito around 3:30 a.m. and then continued after the county cellphone alerts went out.  

The warnings for the residents to leave had been issued for days before the mudslides through social media, news media and community information emails about the potential for mudflows from the huge wildfire scar in the hills above neighborhoods.

"We sent out many, many, many alerts," Lewin said.

Experts say it is important for emergency management officials to warn as many people as possible about potential threats, but disasters can change course in an instant.

"Disasters are very dynamic in danger. They can change from minute to minute," said Scott Somers, an emergency management professor at Arizona State University. "Just because an area can be safe at 1 o'clock in the afternoon doesn't mean it is going to be safe at 3 p.m."

Jim and Alice Mitchell, whose house was swept away when the flash floods cascaded through their neighborhood, had not left their home because their house was under a voluntary evacuation order and not a mandatory order, their daughter, Kelly Weimer said Wednesday. Nearly every home on their block was completely destroyed and others were lifted and tossed from their foundation.

"They were in a voluntary evacuation area so they figured they were OK," said Weimer, who has been frantically searching for her parents for more than a day. "They weren't concerned. It's not like anybody came around and told them to leave."

Weimer, 53, spoke to her parents on Monday to wish her father a happy 89th birthday. The couple of more than five decades planned to stay at home because of the rain and have a quiet dinner. Weimer hasn't heard from them since and pictures from the area show their home on Hot Springs Road was completely gone.

Officials defended their decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation order for the area that was hit hardest by the storm.

"This isn't an exact science in terms of actually defining where something is going to happen," Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said. "Obviously a lot depends on Mother Nature, on the magnitude of the rainfall, the magnitude of the mudslides and so forth, and I think what was put together by a team of people, meteorologists, Cal Fire, our Forest Service people, our firefighters and personnel from the flood district and so forth, made a best-guess estimate as to where this was going to occur, and as it turns out they were exactly right that this was going to hit."

Brown said sheriff's deputies went door to door in the mandatory evacuation area, knocking on 7,000 doors to tell residents to leave their homes hours before the storm swept through. Many refused, he said.