A powerful winter storm barreled into Southern California on Monday, forcing the mass evacuation of Montecito and other communities exactly five years after mudslides in the same area left 23 people dead.
Pounding rain wreaked havoc throughout the coastal counties north of Los Angeles, bringing flooding, road closures and tragedy, including the death of a motorist who entered a flooded roadway and the presumed death of a 5-year-old boy who was swept away by flood waters in San Luis Obispo County.
The storm, which was expected to move through Los Angeles, Orange and other southern counties through Tuesday, dumped more than 10 inches of rain in some areas and prompted pleas for people to stay indoors.
“This is not a day to be out doing anything you don’t have to,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
The storm took aim at Los Angeles County on Monday night, causing widespread street flooding and trapping some people in cars. Firefighters rescued two people after their cars fell down a sinkhole that opened up in Chatsworth. In Ventura County, firefighters rescued a man who was on the roof of his car after getting stuck on a flooded road.
Normally tame creek beds were transformed into raging torrents. Roads were choked with water and debris and, in one case, a person was seen kayaking down a street swamped by windshield-high water.
In Montecito, the storm called to mind the devastating January 2018 mudslides that killed 23 people, destroyed 130 homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Officials were hoping flood control improvements made in the wake of that event would help better protect communities this week.
On Monday afternoon, Ryan Ausanka-Crues walked about 100 feet from his home on East Valley Road to a bridge over Montecito Creek. The creek was full and roaring, the sound of tumbling boulders emanating from the muddy water.
“I was there a couple of hours ago and took a video,” Ausanka-Crues said. “It’s wild.”
During the 2018 mudslides, his home was spared from damage, but his neighbors’ was not. Still, Ausanka-Crues said he had no plans to leave yet.
“I feel pretty good this year, but you never know,” he said.
Alfredo Garcia, 55, couldn’t find a hotel after he brought his wife, who is battling cancer, from Lompoc to Santa Barbara for a PET scan. By the time they tried to return, the roads were closed.
Garcia was one of the first to arrive at a temporary American Red Cross shelter at Cathedral Oaks School, where he helped set up cots.
“It’s hard for her here,” said Garcia, who left at one point to buy Tylenol for his wife. “But I’m sure there’s other people going through harder than us. We’re blessed someone opened the door for us and gave us shelter here.”
The evacuation in Montecito was largely due to the types of hazards that can come with steep terrain and wildfire burn scars, said Michael Anderson, state climatologist at the California Department of Water Resources.
“When you get heavy rain waves like this, it makes the land more prone to landslides and debris flow,” he said. “And to make sure that we don’t repeat the incidents after the Thomas fire, they wanted to evacuate people from that area.”
In addition to Montecito, the evacuation order applied to residents of Toro Canyon, Padaro Lane from Via Real to Santa Claus Lane and Sycamore Canyon, and all campgrounds from Rincon Beach to Gaviota Beach.
Another evacuation order was later issued for the Serena Park area due to flooding.
In Santa Barbara, confused tourists and business owners took photos of flooded buildings. A BMW SUV was stranded in two feet of water in the middle of Gutierrez Street.
Nearby, in Goleta, the storm forced Rudy Ramirez, 55, and his wife and four sons to ride out the torrent in their truck. The family was returning home to Santa Maria from a vacation in Big Bear when the 101 Freeway shut down, leaving them stranded. Since all hotels were booked, they had no option but to spend the night in the truck.
“I’m not feeling good about it, but we have no other choice. You go on vacation thinking you’re gonna relax. Now look where we are,” Ramirez said with a laugh.
As of Monday evening, the storm had dropped eye-popping rainfall totals across the region: 13.3 inches at San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara County, 12.3 inches at Nordhoff Ridge in Ventura County and 11.5 inches at Rocky Butte in San Luis Obispo County.
Much of southwestern California was under watches and warnings for floods, high wind and high surf throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service, with many of the advisories stretching into Tuesday.
In Ventura County, evacuations were ordered for the Ventura Beach RV Resort; residences on the south side of Creek Road from Camp Comfort to Highway 33; and the community of La Conchita — where a mudslide killed 10 people in January 2005. Officials also kept a wary eye on the potential for flooding at the Ventura River, which has been the site of homeless encampments.
According to Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath, 18 people were rescued Monday from islands and areas under bridges along the Ventura River.
In San Luis Obispo County, rescuers called off the search for a 5-year-old boy who was swept away by floodwaters Monday afternoon when conditions became unsafe for divers to continue looking, according to Tony Cipolla, spokesperson for the county Sheriff’s Office.
Firefighters responded to a call about 8 a.m. regarding a vehicle in the San Marcos Creek crossing near Wellsona Road outside of San Miguel, Cipolla said. A mother and her 5-year-old were trying to drive across a road that had been flooded; after the car started to get swept away by the creek, both jumped out.
The mother was rescued by a nearby property owner, but the boy continued down the floodwaters, according to Cipolla, who added that authorities constantly reevaluate conditions and will resume the search if it becomes safe to do so.
Elsewhere in San Luis Obispo County, a motorist died after entering a flooded portion of Avila Beach Drive, according to the California Highway Patrol’s Coastal Division. Evacuations were ordered in several neighborhoods near the Salinas River in Paso Robles.
The rain shut sections of the 101 Freeway and other thoroughfares throughout the day and forced the closure of Santa Barbara Airport and the cancellation of classes Monday and Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara.
The storm is the result of an of atmospheric river, or warm plumes of airborne moisture from the Pacific Ocean, which is expected to bring two waves of intense rain to Southern California through Tuesday evening, weather experts said. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned of marginal risk of isolated strong to severe thunderstorms late Monday into Tuesday. The center also warned of the possibility of brief tornadoes.
Another storm is likely this weekend, forecasters say.
The storm is predicted to pick up in intensity before tapering off Tuesday evening. Rainfall amounts in Los Angeles County are expected to reach 2 to 4 inches along the coast and in coastal valleys and 4 to 8 inches in the foothills and mountains, especially south-facing slopes.
Wind gusts could top 60 mph at the coast and 70 mph in the mountains. Snow will likely remain above 7,500 feet.
A flash flood warning was in effect for large sections of Los Angeles County on Monday evening. Ventura County, Santa Barbara County and a wide swath of San Luis Obispo County were also under a flash flood warning Monday night. Flash flood warnings were later downgraded in some areas.
High surf advisories are in effect through 4 p.m. Tuesday for the beaches of Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, with dangerous rip tides and waves reaching 12 feet in some areas.
Urban and small-stream flooding is likely, said David Sweet, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
L.A. County Public Works issued a Phase 2 mud flow forecast for the Fish fire area near Duarte from Monday evening to Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Rain and strong winds were spreading into Orange and southwestern San Bernardino counties Monday, along with gusty south-to-southeast winds. Parts of Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties were under a flood watch through Tuesday evening, and a wind advisory that took effect at 4 p.m. Monday extends until 4 p.m. Tuesday in the inland and coastal areas of Orange County, according to the National Weather Service in San Diego.
The atmospheric river is essentially “draped along the Central Coast,” slamming the area from Monterey County into Santa Barbara County with the heaviest rainfall, with some downpours extending northeast and southwest, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said.
“This is just the middle of what has already been a very wet and active pattern — and what is expected to be one, really, for at least another week or so,” Swain said.
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Summer Lin and Hayley Smith contributed to this report. Martinez and Goldberg reported from Santa Barbara County; Money and Petri from Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.