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California county issued conflicting evacuation warnings before deadly Montecito mudslides

Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

The county had been warning for days of the coming rains and the mudslide risk. But there has been much debate about the actual evacuation orders.

At a news conference in Carpinteria on Jan. 5, Williams and others officials stood in front of a map that outlined what was possible in a 100- or 500-year storm for the county's beach enclaves.

In Montecito, the map showed that the areas that would be hit hardest ran parallel to creeks that emerged from the foothill canyons and wounds south to the ocean. The hardest hit areas would be south of Highway 192 as mud and debris became lodged under bridges and in catch basins, eventually pushing the mud into residential streets.

In the end, that's exactly what happened the morning of Jan. 9.

Authorities followed boundaries of evacuation zones similar to ones that had been established weeks earlier for the Thomas fire, where homes north of Highway 192 were deemed most at risk. Homes below the highway were considered to be in voluntary evacuation areas and not vulnerable to a landslide.

Sheriff Bill Brown, who ultimately makes the decision on the evacuation plan, said he approved the zones at the recommendation of local and county firefighters, emergency planners and experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.

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In the end, the rain was worse than expected, and the mud caused destruction much farther south than the initial estimates.

"The storm that was predicted, the storm that we prepared for, was not the storm that we received," Brown said. "We knew that it was going to be bad. But looking at years gone by and where damaged occurred ... the destruction was not anything close to the magnitude of this."

Ahead of the storm, Williams said many of his constituents were doubtful that the runoff would live up the hype. At the Jan. 5 news conference, Williams said that the storm posed a "very clear and present danger" to vulnerable areas.

"The night of the storm I was monitoring Facebook and the tone I got from the community was, 'If the storm doesn't materialize, heads are gonna roll,'" he said. "We're ready to hold people accountable for getting people all excited."

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