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Buried in mud, Montecito faces a daunting cleanup with no end in sight

Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- The cobbled parking lots outside boutiques are empty. The Italian trattoria known as Oprah Winfrey's favorite haunt is shuttered, as is the Four Seasons resort owned by Ty Warner, the Beanie Babies tycoon.

A place famous for coastal affluence and extravagance is now unlivable and grappling with one basic and primitive question: Where to put all the mud?

The picturesque topography that drew the rich and famous here, hills and mountains rising dramatically from the Pacific Ocean, fed the destructive mudslides that killed at least 20 people, wiped out 65 homes and damaged 450.

The disaster leaves Montecito with a cleanup that is hard to fathom, and with no timetable for completion. Many streets have limited access because of the mud. Bridges are washed out. Power and gas are shut off for thousands. And when the water does come out of faucets, it's not drinkable.

For Montecito to recover, it must first move tons and tons of mud.

Santa Barbara County officials were hauling "lots and lots of dump trucks" to a site in Summerland, where it was dried, sorted and stockpiled. At beaches in Goleta and Carpinteria, dump trucks unloaded tons of mud and sediment onto the sand. Public health officials shut down several waters along the coast after tests showed abnormally high levels of bacteria.

 

"The problem over the last three days was the wetness," said Chris Sneddon, deputy director of Santa Barbara County Public Works. "It was runny, like trying to pick up soup in your hands and put it into a bowl without leaking."

Now the mud has begun to dry -- spackled onto the pavement or pushed toward the curbs like mounds of fudge topping several feet.

"It's heavy," said Ben Chrestenson, whose crew of 40 workers helped clear out the mud-clogged garage at the Montecito Inn and other streets in the shopping district along Coast Village Road. "It has the consistency of concrete."

He used a broom to sweep dried dirt off the sidewalk as a dozer plowed the CVS parking lot across the street. Cleaning with power washers would have to wait: There was nowhere to drain the water.

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