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Climate and Environment

Montecito Under Evacuation: What We Know So Far As Another Storm Brings Flooding, Mudslide Fears

Trees line what look like a brown river. The only signs it's actually a covered roadway are the metal guardrail along the bank and a strip of asphalt with yellow stripes disappearing into the water.
Northbound lanes of the 101 freeway were closed at Arroyo Parrida Creek and San Ysidro Creek bridges in Santa Barbara County due to flooding on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.
(Courtesy of Caltrans via District 5 Twitter account)
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Another storm moving through Southern California has prompted evacuations and emergency declarations as vulnerable communities brace for flooding and mudslides, particularly those in the foothills and near areas burned by wildfire.

The entire city of Montecito was under an immediate evacuation order, as were portions of Carpinteria, Summerland, and Santa Barbara. Montecito was the site of deadly mudslides in 2018.

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President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for the state of California, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which noted that federal disaster assistance was being freed up for state, local and tribal response efforts.

The rain is expected to peak in Los Angeles County on Monday night — up to an inch of rain an hour, along with thunderstorms.

What You Should Know

  • Expect widespread flooding on the freeways
  • Be prepared for rock slides across Laurel Canyon, Pacific Coast Highway, Kanan Road, and Las Virgenes Road

Evacuations

By midday Monday, the storm had led to an evacuation order for the entire community of Montecito in Santa Barbara County as another atmospheric river rolls across Southern California, heavy rains pounding Santa Barbara County.

These orders were issued five years to the day in 2018 when early morning mudslides took over neighborhoods and killed 23 people there.

Similar conditions are in place again: heavy rains brought on by an atmospheric river. Seven inches of rain have already fallen, with a total potential for 10 inches.

El Montecito Presbyterian Church is located in the middle of town. Church administrator Maryann Spradley remembers the 2018 storm well — it killed a parishoner.

"It makes me sad," Spradley said. "I drive by every morning, the houses that were lost, and some of the vacant lots that still remain. And one of our elders who was very special lost his life in that event. And I know they were going to have a five year anniversary tonight, but due to this storm, everything is canceled. So it just makes me sad and makes my heart really heavy."

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Most of their Montecito parishioners are sheltering in place, Spradley said, describing the roads as treacherous and covered with debris. Once the storm subsides, church deacons will distribute meals and check on their members, she said.

First responders and law enforcement are monitoring the area for any type of slides, according to Scott Safechuck, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

"We do have lots of isolated incidents of rocks falling on the roads, smaller slides, trees, uprooting," Safechuck said.

San Luis Obispo residents south of the AG Creek Levee and one mile west of Highway 1 were ordered to evacuate or get to higher ground immediately.

Here’s a map of the evacuation area from the County of San Luis Obispo Office of Emergency Services:

An evacuation order is in place for these areas in Santa Barbara County:

  • All of Montecito
  • Toro Canyon
  • Sycamore Canyon
  • Padaro Lane
  • Serena Park area in Carpinteria

The storm can trigger memories of great loss for their community, Taylor Poisall with the Santa Barbara County Red Cross said. But they are available to provide comfort.
"This can be one of the worst days of people's lives. And they can talk to a Red Cross volunteer or fellow evacuees, their neighbors, to provide comfort," Poisall said.

Kelly Hubbard, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, said they are working to find two more evacuation sites — one in the southern part of the county and another in the northern area.

You can see Montecito's evacuation order areas in red here, while the pink indicates shelter-in-place orders:

A map of Santa Barbara County showing evacuation areas, including a red area covering much of Montecito, as well as a pink area further up the coast.
Evacuation and shelter-in-place orders in Santa Barbara County.
(Screenshot via Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management)

Santa Barbara residents around Cave and Alisal burn scars have been ordered to shelter in place by emergency response, with directions to “go to the innermost room or high ground. Do not attempt to leave.”

L.A. County

A small portion of L.A. County is under an evacuation warning, including the Juniper Hills and Valyermo areas, until 8 p.m. Tuesday night as the storm moves southward.

The areas are on the northern slope of the San Gabriel mountains. Residents should be ready for possible evacuations due to mud or debris flow. The Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management said residents should gather loved ones, pets, and supplies — and be ready to leave.

You can see the areas here, via a map from the county's government:

A map shows evacuation warnings in small portions of L.A. County near Juniper Hills, Big Rock Springs, and Paradise Springs.
Evacuation warnings were in effect Monday afternoon at these locations.
(Courtesy L.A. County)

Ventura

Parts of the Ventura River are under evacuation orders in advance of expected flooding by midnight. Last week's heavy downpours caused the river to breach its banks. The water level is 8 feet below it's 18-foot flood stage.

"We're expecting the peak flows around midnight, and right now the flow and the river is pretty low — it's come up a little bit since the weekend," said Glenn Shephard with Ventura County Public Works.

Heavy rain can swell the river quickly. The Ventura Beach RV Resort was under an evacuation order starting at 3 p.m. County officials have notified homeless encampments to leave the river bank for now and to seek safe shelter. The river has been the site of deadly flooding.

Fox 11 News captured a river rescue of 18 people from the river on Monday, underscoring the risk.

An evacuation order was also in place for the community of La Conchita, as well as a shelter-in-place order for the neighborhood of Camp Chaffee.

Further North

Cal Poly agricultural buildings and facilities were being evacuated due to an imminent reservoir breach outside of San Luis Obispo. Students, faculty, and staff were told to leave Monday afternoon via an email from Cal Poly.

Animals associated with the agricultural school were also being evacuated. The school said the main campus was not under threat. Classes were canceled Monday morning.

Evacuation Centers

  • Wake Center at Santa Barbara City College
  • Veteran’s Memorial Building at 941 Walnut Ave. (Carpinteria)

Expected Weather

The National Weather Service's message in Monday's forecast: brace yourselves for this week's storm.

"The rain is going to get steadier and heavier as we move through the day, and the peak of the storm across Los Angeles County is going to be tonight," meteorologist David Bruno said. "Then there might be a little break in the early morning, like around sunrise or so — but then it's gonna get heavier again by midmorning and early afternoon [Tuesday]."

Rainfall rates could reach up to an inch per hour, accompanied by thunderstorms. Wind gusts will reach up to 70 mph in the mountain areas and 40 mph in the valleys.

But Santa Barbara County looks like it will be getting a reprieve from the rain this evening — officials said Monday there would be a break in the rain between 5 p.m. and midnight. But then the rain picks up again, with rain expected until 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Thunder and lightning were also forecast throughout the region.

A Note To Drivers On Our Roads

  • Check your car
  • Know that middays can be the most dangerous
  • Plan ahead
  • Turn on your headlights
  • Slow down!
  • If you do end up skidding, don't panic
  • Don't drive through standing water
  • Pay attention, duh

We have more detailed guidance: Your Guide To Driving Safely In The Rain In LA (And Really Anywhere).

Road Closures And Conditions

Conditions on our freeways will be dangerous.

"There's going to be widespread flooding on all of the freeways ... later today through tomorrow," cautioned David Bruno of the National Weather Service. "Travel is going to be kind of treacherous."

A portion of the 101 Freeway north of Gaviota was closed because of flooding, though southbound lanes remained open. Northbound lanes north of State Route 33, as well as State Route 154, are set to remain closed until sometime Tuesday due to fallen rocks.

Santa Barbara officials begged residents to stay off the roads unless they are evacuating, as intense rain is expected to continue into the evening in the county.

“If you don’t have a need to be out and about, do not go out ... until at least midday tomorrow,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Boulders were blocking parts of Highway 101 near Gaviota, Brown said, after a rock net and I-beams had fallen into the highway.

Brown said the California Highway Patrol is closing northbound 101 at state route 33 in Ventura to stop people from entering the county. There are several closures of the northbound lanes in Montecito and Carpinteria.

Northbound 101 was set to reopen at Cabrillo for evacuating residents.

“But the idea is we wanna try to open up northbound within the greater Santa Barbara area, so that people who are evacuating, can come up into the area and go wherever they're going to be staying,” he said.

Closed highways in Santa Barbara County include:

  • Highway 154 closed in both directions
  • Northbound 101 closed at the 33, through Santa Claus Lane
  • Intermittent closures along sections of northbound 101 through Summerland and Montecito, including on- and off-ramp closures
  • Northbound 101 closed at Gaviota
  • SR-150 closed in both directions from north of Santa Paula to the Ventura-Santa Barbara county line

Other Closures

All Santa Barbara County public schools will be closed Tuesday, according to the county, which added that any families with students in private schools will need to check in with their individual schools.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is still planning to hold classes on Tuesday, but "if there are road closures and or mud flow problems, we may close the affected schools," a spokesperson for the district told LAist.

Flood Watch

As the latest atmospheric river moves into Los Angeles and Orange counties Monday, flood watches are in effect for most of L.A. County — including the valleys, mountains, and the L.A. Basin:

"We're really looking at a fairly extended period of moderate to heavy rain, chance of thunderstorms," Bruno said.

Residents from Santa Clarita to Torrance were under a flash flood warning until midnight. The huge swath of the county encompasses the city of L.A. and stretches as far west as Malibu and east to El Monte. The warning also includes Glendale.

A flash flood warning is issued when a flash flood is in progress or is coming. If you’re in a low lying area that’s likely to flood, you should grab belongings and pets and get to higher ground.

In Santa Barbara County, the sheriff urged everyone to stay home, citing the dangers due to debris and floodwaters. Santa Barbara County emergency workers responded to more than 200 calls related to the storm and five water rescues as of Monday afternoon.

A flash flood watch has been extended into mid-Tuesday by the National Weather Service for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Orange County coastal areas from Seal Beach to Mission Viejo should also anticipate flooding, along with all recent burn areas across Southern California.

Heavier rain going into Monday evening was set to bring an increased risk of flooding in L.A. County and southern Ventura County, as well as the threat of debris flows in recent burn scar areas, according to the National Weather Service.

Areas of Ventura County — including Oxnard, Simi Valley, and Thousand Oaks — were also under a flash flood warning until midnight Monday.

The Santa Barbara Airport was closed due to flooding, and all commercial flights were canceled until further notice. Schedules at Burbank's airport and LAX remained normal.

The many creeks that wind through Santa Barbara County hillsides, including the community of Montecito, are swollen with record rainfall. County incident Commander David Neels asked for all residents to abide by evacuation orders and to remain off the roads.

"Today the entire county of Santa Barbara is experiencing the effects of a very complex series of storms," Neels said. "There are multiple areas under evacuation orders and we need the public's adherence to these orders as we expect additional high intensity rainfall in the overnight hours."

Foothills neighborhoods received about 6 inches of rain, while in the San Marcos Pass, a record one foot of rain fell over 24 hours.

Inland communities were among those being impacted as rain continued to lash down. A flash flood warning was also in effect until 9 p.m. for Castaic, Fillmore, Ojai, Santa Paula, and surrounding areas.

The San Bernardino County Fire Department warned that mountain areas could see up to 7 inches of rain through 10 p.m. Tuesday.

The Salinas River in Paso Robles was expected to swell past the stage where it could be monitored by 5 p.m. and peak at around 24 feet Monday evening, according to the NWS. People are advised to stay away from the river, bridges, and low crossings.

There was also an increased risk expected of rock and mudslide activity in mountains and canyon roadways. One area affected by flooding has been Santa Barbara's east side.

Impact On The Drought

With the storms this month, it may be tempting to think our prolonged drought is over — Los Angeles County reports its captured more than 7 billion gallons of water this storm season, which is enough to support 182,00 people for a year.

The recent atmospheric rivers along the West Coast have been great for our reservoirs and the snow pack. But unfortunately, the drought is far from over.

It'll take a lot more than a few exceptional storms, according to Jonathan Rutz with the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"What we really need to start talking about busting a drought would be for this type of weather to continue right through the entire year through April or something, or to have multiple consecutive years in a row when we see storm sequences like this," Rutz said.

The good news: big storms do help restore some of our water supply. But Rutz's excitement is tempered — while some reservoirs have come up substantially, others are still well below their historical averages.

"One storm system or even one good storm season isn't going to change that. We do need to practice our water conservation measures every year — common practice now," said Steven Frasher of L.A. County Public Works.

Currently, stormwater accounts for about one-third of L.A.'s water supply during a year. Work continues to expand that system, Frasher said.

California's Storm Response

Biden's emergency declaration followed Gov. Gavin Newsom's formal request for assistance to support storm recovery efforts. Newsom made the request Sunday, announcing $202 million from the state's budget to be invested into long-term flood prevention to improve urban flooding and levees, particularly in the Delta region.

"These floods are deadly, and have now turned to be more deadly than even the wildfires here in the state of California. Common sense — just be cautious over the course of the next week," Newsom said.

State officials reported that 12 people died from storm-related impacts, including flooding, in the last 10 days. They urge Californians to avoid commuting if possible during the intense hours of the storm — highlighting that a car can float in just a foot of water.

How Experts Track Atmospheric Rivers

We've been telling you about atmospheric rivers, and here's the work that goes into forecasting them. Teams known as "Hurricane Hunters" fly directly into the storm. The information those teams collect is a game changer for short-range forecasts, according to Jonathan Rutz with UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"What was previously sort of the skill we used to have for one of these events with a two-day forecast, we had that same skill four days out. So we essentially double the amount of lead time with which we were able to make precipitation forecasts," Rutz said.

When Hurricane Hunters fly into a storm, they drop a device into the weather system which collects data about atmosphere, temperature, moisture, and wind, Rutz said. That information is then sent off to meteorologists and others to analyze in order to create a forecast.

What Else You Should Know About Atmospheric Rivers

A single atmospheric river can carry more water than the Mississippi River at its mouth and its winds can be dangerous.

An illustration of the West Coast from an aerial perspective shows a thick band of blue moisture forming over the ocean and traveling inland over California's mountains.
(Courtesy NOAA)

But these phenomena are also a normal part of West Coast weather, bringing sorely needed rain and adding to the snowpack that's a key source of our state's water.

At the same time, it's the same weather event that triggered the catastrophic Montecito mudslide in early 2018.

Eric Boldt, with the National Weather Service, told us that you can think of atmospheric rivers just like the name implies: a river in the sky.

"So an atmospheric river is basically the fuel of a storm system over the Pacific Ocean," he said. "It really taps into a lot of water vapor that is streaming over the top of our heads and fueling the storm system as it moves to California."

What's Next

The Santa Barbara County sheriff recommends all Santa Barbara schools remain closed tomorrow to keep traffic low, but told residents to check with their local school district. As of mid-Monday afternoon, no school closures in Los Angeles County were planned for Tuesday, according to the L.A. County Office of Education.

How We're Reporting On This

Producers from LAist/KPCC are monitoring updates as the storm moves through Southern California. LAist Associate Editor Mike Roe is updating our digital story. Staff members who've contributed to this story include Ernesto Arce, Michael Flores, Jackie Fortiér, Rebecca Gutierrez, Julia Paskin, Gillian Morán Pérez, Nate Perez, and Mike Roe.

What Questions We're Asking

  • What damage will this storm cause?
  • How much rain will we get?
  • Where will we see flooding?

Learn more

Your Questions Or Ideas

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