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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

"I said, 'Uh oh, what's going on?'" Lewin said.

The county followed up with its own flash flood push alert at 2:46 a.m. -- but only for residents who had proactively signed up for official notices or were actively monitoring social media.

It wasn't until 3:50 a.m. Tuesday that Santa Barbara County officials sent an alert through a federal wireless system that buzzes every cellphone within range of a working tower, similar to an Amber Alert.

But by then, the deadly debris flow had already begun. At least 17 people died -- several, like Gower, in areas not under mandatory evacuation orders -- and more than 100 homes were obliterated.

Many questions remain about what could have been done to keep people out of harm's way. But several factors combined to create problems: issues with the warning systems, the unwillingness of some residents to evacuate for a second time after the Thomas fire, and a deluge that defied expectations.

Jeff Gater, the county's emergency manager, said that more than 200,000 text messages, emails and other warnings were sent out to people who subscribed to such messages but that officials decided not to use the cellphone push alert system out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

 

"If you cry wolf, people stop listening," he said.

Lewin criticized the federal wireless emergency alert system, saying it "is broken." The alerts appear to have not reached phones on the Verizon network, he said.

Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokesperson, said storm-related power outages were causing service interruptions in parts of Montecito. Spokespeople for T-Mobile and Sprint said they had minimal disruptions.

Robert Villegas, a spokesman for Southern California Edison Co., said that power poles and telephone lines suffered extensive damage but that crews were positioned in the area well ahead of time because they knew the storm would be bad.

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