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California county issued conflicting evacuation warnings before deadly Montecito mudslides

Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES -- In the days before deadly mudslides devastated Montecito, Santa Barbara County officials released conflicting evacuation instructions that left some hard-hit neighborhoods out of the warning zone.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office posted on its website and on Facebook a list of voluntary and mandatory evacuation areas for the town. But a separate map on the county's main website included a larger voluntary evacuation zone that included dozens of homes not covered by the sheriff's list.

Of the 21 people killed in the mudslide, at least a dozen lived in areas that were covered by the county's evacuation map but not included in the Sheriff's Office warnings, according to records and data reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

In response to questions from The Times, Santa Barbara County emergency officials acknowledged the discrepancy while emphasizing the many other measures officials took to warn residents of an approaching storm that caused the mudslides, including emails, social media alerts, press releases and even deputies going door to door in some areas.

"Regrettably, however, also 30 hours prior to the storms arrival, I approved a press release and Facebook that had discrepancies with the western boundary of our intended voluntary evacuation area," Robert Lewin, San Barbara County's director of the Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement.

Officials emphasized that all those who died were in a voluntary or mandatory evacuation zone and that the warnings probably saved more lives in what were the worst mudslides to hit California in several decades.

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It remains far from clear whether a broader evacuation warning would have made a difference. Officials estimated that only 15 percent of the residents in the mandatory evacuation zone left the area.

But the discrepancy in the warnings adds to questions about whether more could have been done to get people out of harm's way before the mudslides swallowed homes and buried residents. The Times reported earlier that the county did not send out Amber Alert-style bulletins to cellphones until the mudslides had begun. By then, it was too late for residents to flee. There were also technical snafus that prevented earlier warnings from getting to residents.

County officials said it's important to now learn from the mudslides -- as well as the fires that swept through the area weeks earlier -- to improve evacuation preparations and warnings.

"If you're not learning from every disaster and figuring out what to do better, than in my view you're not doing your job," said County Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Montecito and Carpinteria, in an interview last week. "Obviously in retrospect it would've helped to have more evacuated. But I don't think there was any disagreement."

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