LOS ANGELES -- Santa Barbara County officials chose not to send an emergency alert to cellphones warning of mudslides until destructive flooding had already begun in Montecito, officials said Wednesday.
The message, similar to an Amber Alert for abducted children, was sent about 3:50 a.m. Tuesday to all registered cellphones in areas that were under voluntary and mandatory evacuations because of heavy rains that threatened mudflows in the wake of the Thomas fire, officials said.
It's unclear how many people actually got the alert. But by then, tons of mud, trees, rocks and other debris were rolling down hills that had been burned in the largest fire on record in California. At least 17 people died, and more than 100 homes were destroyed in the slides.
Jeff Gater, Santa Barbara County's emergency manager, said the alert was sent because of deteriorating conditions and followed one issued by the National Weather Service. Officials expected heavy rain, but the downpour was much worse than anticipated and it became clear mudslides were occurring.
In the days leading up to the storm, the county had issued numerous warnings about the possibility of mudflows on the county's website and social media, through news outlets and via community information emails that residents can sign up to receive. Gater said more than 200,000 emails and other warning messages were sent out. But the county decided not to use the push alert system to cellphones, out of concern that it might not be taken seriously.
"If you tell everyone to get out, everyone get out, the next time people won't listen," he said. "If you cry wolf, people stop listening."
Deadly natural disasters in California over the last few months have sparked debate over how best to warn the public about an impending safety threat. More than 40 people died in October when fires swept through the wine country. Some residents said they got little or no warning, in part because Sonoma County decided not to use the cellphone bulletins as the fire approached Santa Rosa subdivisions.
The wine country fires, as well as December's Thomas fire, highlighted weaknesses in emergency warning systems that officials are now trying to address. Among the problems: Cellphone alerts are not getting to those targeted, and television warnings are not being broadcast properly.
It's unclear how many people would have heeded an emergency evacuation order had it been issued earlier in Montecito. Numerous residents said they knew about the mudslide risk from warnings but decided to stay in their homes anyway. Some said that after fleeing from fire in December, they doubted the rains would pose much of a risk.
David Cradduck, 66, was one of many people in his Montecito neighborhood who stayed.