Oprah’s Montecito Struggles With Emotional Toll of Mudslides

The deadly mudslides that swept through this bucolic seaside town a week ago have irrevocably changed the face of the community previously known for its charming shops, famous residents and sky-high property values. 

The physical damage alone will take months to repair. But the damage to residents’ emotional health may linger even longer.

Montecito’s attraction, many residents say, is that almost nothing bad ever happens here: low crime, no snow, hurricanes or tornadoes, and relatively little danger from earthquakes. Even flooding was deemed unlikely since the whole town sits on a hillside that runs right down to the ocean.

“You have beaches and mountains. It was like paradise. And nothing of this magnitude has ever hit this town. People are devastated,” said Bob Santoro as he took a break from shoveling mud from a friend’s driveway. “People are in shock. Nothing like this has ever happened. It’s more shock than frustration — shock and loss.”

Heavy rains early Tuesday night unleashed a series of mudslides that ran down mountainsides burned by last month’s Thomas Fire.

The Thomas Fire alone was devastating: two dead, at least 1,000 structures destroyed. Many residents were forced to leave their homes for two weeks as the largest wildfire in recorded state history burned the mountains above. The mudslides heaped misery upon sorrow, killing at least 20 more people and destroying at least 73 more homes.

To be sure, the physical damage to Montecito isn’t absolute. Most streets and homes survived unscathed. Other streets became rivers as mud tore houses in half, blasted cars from garages, ripped down trees and tumbled boulders like Legos.

Firefighters are still conducting the grim task of searching rubble piles of multimillion-dollar homes for victims assisted by prisoners and cadaver-sniffing dogs that are quickly becoming exhausted in the dangerous conditions. Many evacuated residents don’t yet fully grasp how badly their town has been damaged or how long the scars will remain.

The mudslides have so utterly reorganized the terrain that veteran rescue workers say the hurricanes this summer in Texas and Florida pale in comparison to the concentrated devastation they are entrenched in.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Trevor Hughes