I received an email from a friend and a reader asking “Did you drop off the face of the earth? (The answer is, almost) Are you ever going to write again?” (Yes, hopefully)!
I have tried to sit down so many times to write after the fires and mudslides. I just couldn’t do it. I was too emotional about our town and the turn it has taken. Our town that is as much like Mayberry as you can get, is hurting, and so are its people, and will be for quite some time.
People are without homes, homes are without grounds on which to sit and worst of all, children are without parents. We have lost lives to these horrendous mudslides and that cannot be erased from our minds.
Along with the tragedy is the beautiful kindness from strangers. It has been remarkable! From the first responders and all the unbelievable stories we hear about them to the young man in the cheese shop, who sleeps in his chair to be at the ready to serve free sandwiches to the firemen. He was a fireman himself at one time and he knew what that meant to others.
Our personal odyssey started in December when The Thomas fire came down in a force we have never seen before. Although the fire was not close enough to hurt us the air was so putrid, we had to leave. We left under voluntary evacuation and went to stay in LA with my daughter. Our Christmas plans were cancelled with my family in Montecito, along with everyone else's in our town. All the restaurants and shops closed on Coast Village Road, our main street. Again, we left for LA, this time to my son’s house for what turned out to be a lovely last-minute Christmas.
On the following Monday, the madness of the horrendous mudslides started. This time we were mandatorily evacuated. We were told to leave by a knocking on our door and then told we were blocked and couldn’t get out of our gated community because of the huge mud and smashed cars, outside our gates. We were stuck inside, nowhere to go, for three days and nights. We had no TV or computer. We ate what we had in the refrigerator, sharing with neighbors. Speaking of neighbors, everyone was driving around inside the gates, charging their cell phones in their cars. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would have been laughable. People were meeting in the middle of our community with firemen and the National guard, whoever would talk to us. We were all begging for news, we were cut off from the rest of Montecito. On the 4th day the electricity was shut off and that’s when I said, that’s it for me! Cold and dark? Can’t do that. My husband said, “Let’s see if we can get out of here”. Our neighbors, knocked on our door and told us, “They are letting us out the back way. We are leaving in 20 minutes." They had a four-wheel drive. We told them we would follow them out, in case we got stuck with our two-wheel drive vehicle, they said, not to worry, they would help us.
After a call to friends we found out we were so lucky that we were able to rent their house, usually rented for the season, in the desert. We grabbed whatever clothes we could see with the flashlight and as it turned out we chose very weird combinations of bathing suits, workout clothes, sweaters, pants, shoes and blouses so, for the third time in under a month, we were evacuated from our home. We live in Montecito in a condo, in a beach community, right off Olive Mill road, one of the hardest hit roads from the mud. To get to the desert, because the 101 was closed was another matter. As it worked out National Guard walked along side us as we skidded along in the mud to make sure we were alright (another kindness from strangers). Tears rolled down my cheeks as we left with our dog, dog bed, food and belongings and drove to the motel in Santa Barbara that would take dogs. Would there be another rain and wash our condo away? We didn’t know if we would ever see it again. We had no idea of the devastation that had taken place outside our complex because we had no TV or computer for the four days. We were stunned. Outside our gates were cars smashed like tin cans in the trees, policemen with dogs sniffing for dead bodies, other dogs sniffing for live bodies. It was horrendous. The 101 was unrecognizable, covered with mud. Coast Village Road, our main street, was covered with mud, our whole town was covered with mud. How did this happen to us? Those visions remain in my head. I see them as I start to fall asleep at night.
After arriving at the motel, we quickly took Sophia (our dog) to Convivo at the Santa Barbara Inn for dinner. We needed to connect to people. There were so many of our friends who had checked in and were to remain there for many weeks. There was a jubilant air in the patio, where we met. We were all so happy to be survivors and to see each other. We were happy and devastated at the same time. We were on a ride on which we would stay for many weeks.
Our plan was to go to the desert after one night in the motel. To get to the desert, however, we had to go North to Santa Maria (an hour and ½) sleep over night and then drive for 6 hours back down to Palm Springs. We arrived with Sophia, dog bed and our weird assortment of clothes. We slept for 2 days. We were totally physically and spirituality exhausted. BTW, almost a month later I’m still exhausted!
We have found a haven here. Lying in the sun, swimming, relaxing. We are very lucky and of course we realize how good we have it compared to those who lost homes, businesses, and the worst imaginable, lives of loved ones. Two friends (also evacuees came down to stay with us for some recovery time, my daughter came to cheer us up and an old friend from high school came down too. The bulletins kept coming we personally, unimaginably, lost a friend, 61-year-old, young and vibrant, mother, wife, grandmother and business woman. The numbers crept up, 16 dead, 18 dead, 23 dead. A live baby was found after floating down a creek, found under a car and saved. Is that sentence even possible? (More kindness of strangers) We are still on that up and down ride! There is a deep sadness in my heart for everyone who was hurt or touched by the mudslides but even for those of us whose houses weren’t mowed down but now feel a vulnerability that we never felt before. A certain uncertainty about what can happen to ones’ life in a second. A feeling one has to hold on very tight and let go all at the same time. An unsettling of the mind.
Our town is rallying with magnificent numbers of outside and inside help and there is no doubt in my mind that we will come back, maybe it will be different, maybe better. None of us know how long this will take and what it is we can do to help. Weather it be, helping that young man make sandwiches, helping the Red Cross, Visiting Nurses with bereavement, or raising money, we all want to help our town come back as quickly as possible. I think we all realize how grateful we are and how much we love where we live!
After the unimaginable happens, one learns, life goes on.
Stay strong Montecito!