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A deadly combination of factors raised mudslides' toll

Joseph Serna, Hailey Branson-Potts, Ruben Vives and Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES -- Josie Gower woke up to the sound of rain hammering the roof of her Montecito home around 3 a.m. Tuesday. She walked downstairs, where her boyfriend had been keeping an eye on the storm, and together they opened to door to look outside.

A wall of mud and boulders as big as pickup trucks crashed toward Gower's house, sweeping the couple out the front door. Gower, 69, clung to the door frame. Her boyfriend reached for her hand. Neither could hold on.

Her boyfriend, Norm, was pinned against a fence, buried in mud up to his neck. She was swept away and died.

"He was in the mud calling her name for hours," said Alastair Haigh, Gower's 37-year-old son-in-law.

By the time tons of mud and debris started flowing down fire-scorched hillsides and into Montecito neighborhoods early Tuesday, it was too late for most residents still inside their homes, and there was no way to escape.

Officials had been warning for days that heavy storms could produce strong mudflows.

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But when the rains moved in and the storm proved much worse than forecasters predicted, emergency agencies struggled to get the word out to residents on their cellphones about the urgent danger.

Just after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service sent a cellphone push alert for people near the fresh Thomas fire burn scar: flash flood warning.

But in the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, where workers were waiting for the predicted deluge, only a few people's phones buzzed with the alert. Others got nothing.

Robert Lewin, director of the emergency management office, knew that couldn't be good.

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