California county issued conflicting evacuation warnings before deadly Montecito mudslides

Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

County officials are eager to say their best option for messaging is their Aware and Prepare community alert initiative, a set of subscriber-based warning systems that can send timely texts, phone calls, tweets and emails to its users when a disaster is imminent or unfolding in real time.

But there are clear flaws in systems like these, said Botterell.

For one, visitors in a tourist-reliant community like Montecito don't receive the messages because they haven't signed up. Service workers who live on their employer's property could also miss out.

Records show that Santa Barbara County relied almost exclusively on its Aware and Prepare initiative to distribute information to subscribers ahead of, during and after the storm, along with social media postings and traditional news media. Officials told The Times on Friday that about 50,000 people, or barely more than 10 percent of the county, is enrolled in the program. Thousands of additional landline calls were made through reverse 911.

It wasn't until the storm was at its peak and homes were being washed away that the County Office of Emergency Management used a federal warning system to send a message to all cellphones in the affected area that they should take action, regardless of subscription.

Currently the system only allows agencies to send out 90-character texts to phones -- not enough to give accurate details on the nature and location of a threat. That will change in May 2019 when the character limit jumps to 360, Botterell said.

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But there needs to be a physical warning infrastructure in place too, Brown suggested, something along the lines of sirens, "because it doesn't matter how many messages you send out if you don't have your phone or if they're not at their computer."

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