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Evacuations lifted as Santa Barbara avoids major storm problems

A rainbow appears on the Southern California coastline near Carpinteria, California on January 9, 2018, after a night of heavy rain causing mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm. An overnight storm Thursday and Friday brought more fears of mudslides.
A rainbow appears on the Southern California coastline near Carpinteria, California on January 9, 2018, after a night of heavy rain causing mudslides unleashed by a ferocious storm. An overnight storm Thursday and Friday brought more fears of mudslides.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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A powerful winter storm sweeping into Southern California that prompted evacuation orders brought periods of intense rain and reports of minor debris flows Friday, but officials said it was so far not a repeat of the January storm that brought deadly mudslides.

As many as 30,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders overnight in the foothill communities of Santa Barbara County, including areas devastated by the deadly mud flows in January. Compliance among residents ordered to leave was as high as 87 percent, according to Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department.

But as of 9 a.m., the worst of the storm was over, those evacuation orders had been lifted and only minor damages had been reported, according to county officials.

"Together we made it through the first winter storm since the 1/9 Debris Flow," Sheriff Bill Brown said in a statement. "On behalf of all public safety and emergency officials, we want to thank you for staying informed, being prepared and following the evacuation orders issued yesterday. We know that being evacuated is a tremendous hardship and we did not make this decision lightly. Because of your cooperation we were able to get through this together."

As of 6:30 a.m., San Marcos Pass in the Santa Barbara Mountains had seen the heaviest amount of rain, with 3.35 inches over 24 hours.

Officials had closely watched rainfall totals in anticipation of possible mudslides. Rainfall of more than .5 inches per hour could result in debris flows when coupled with steep and recently scorched terrain, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Bob Ludwick, a longtime Montecito resident who had to evacuate Thursday night, said he was glad authorities were being cautious after the January mudslides and didn't mind having to leave his home. He said most residents were quick to follow the evacuation order when it was issued.

"We have been on tender hooks for weeks and weeks. It's kind of PTSD, and it didn't take much for the population to say, 'OK, we're leaving,'" Ludwick told Take Two.

Some Montecito residents still hadn't returned to their homes after the initial January evacuation, Ludwick said, and those who had returned were still facing a long road ahead.

"Even if your home suffered no damage and your streets are fine there is a really palpable pall that hangs over the entire community today," Ludwick said.

As president of the Coast Village Association that represents local businesses, Ludwick had also heard concerns from local shop owners who are continuing to lose revenues.

"Even today they're calling me asking, 'When can we get in? What should we tell our employees? Do they come to work? Do they not?' There's no playbook for this," Ludwick said.

The storm system was the result of an atmospheric river — a giant conveyor of rain pushed forward by strong winds — making its way down the California coast.

Concern now turns to Los Angeles County, as the storm bears down on to the Creek and La Tuna burn areas. A flood watch has been issued until 3 p.m. in L.A. County.

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To the north, a blizzard warning was in effect for parts of the Sierra Nevada, where more than a foot of snow fell Thursday, shutting down major roads. Authorities warned of high avalanche danger for the backcountry around Lake Tahoe.

Road closures

According to the California Highway Patrol, State Route 33 above Ojai was closed.

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Highway 192 at East Valley Road in Santa Barbara County saw some small debris flows, which officials said they were working to clear.

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Highway 101 remained open.

This story has been updated.