Montecito resident Gretchen Horn hasn’t been home since January 9.
That’s when a torrent of boulders, mud and branches barreled down Montecito Creek, jumped the bank and roared into her neighborhood on Santa Elena Lane in the pre-dawn hours. Though heavy rain had been predicted, Horn's home was in a voluntary evacuation zone, and she and her family chose to stay behind, thinking they would be fine with the usual flood precautions.
“There was no concept at all that this was going to happen,” she said. “We thought, ‘Maybe we’ll get some mud up to the top of the sandbags.’ We had no clue.”
Horn's home ended up smack in the path of a deadly debris flow unleashed by a once-in-200-year cloudburst above mountains left bare by the Thomas Fire in December. The slide buried her home in a girdle of mud waist deep.
One of her last memories as first responders led her to a rescue vehicle was the devastation in her neighborhood.
“Gates were ripped off, living rooms were gone," she said. "My husband walked past a body bag. Things were out of control." At least 21 people lost their lives in the disaster.
Those images were fresh in Horn's mind this week at the Hotel Milo in Santa Barbara where she was spending her seventh evacuation since December.
Horn has been there so often the people behind the desk know her dog, Coco, by name and feed him biscuits when he barks.
With rain falling, Horn shuddered as looked out the window. She used to love the rain, but now it's become something menacing.
"I don't like feeling that way," she said. "I don't like living like that. I don't like being anxious about the weather."
This week, her temporary house in Carpenteria was included in a voluntary evacuation zone declared because of the massive storm lashing the region.
Now, Horn said she takes voluntary evacuations much more seriously.
“When they tell us to go, I’m going to go,” she said, regardless of the color on map.
Being away from home for so long has taken an emotional toll.
“I’ve never been one for prescription drugs, but I take a half a valium now every night,” she said. “And it helps me sleep. And it helps me just be calm, and I can just roll with it.”
Now that it’s the end of March, and the rainy season is winding down. She hopes the family’s diaspora will end soon.
She’s hoping to move back into a rental house in her Montecito neighborhood in the next week or two, and then back into their own house within a month. But she has mixed feelings about going home.
Many houses in her neighborhood still look like a wrecking ball took a chunk out of them. The Horns were luckier: the mud didn’t damage their house, although because it sat in 3 feet of mud for almost a month, there is extensive moisture damage to the walls and floors.
“I just love Montecito. I love our town. It is an awesome town with amazing families and really great people, and I just want to be back there," she said. "But I’m scared of Montecito, which I hate. I don’t want to be scared of my town, but it’s scary right now. But I am looking forward to just having some normalcy,” she said. “We just want to go home.”