By Dena O'DellMay 16, 2018
SANTA BARBARA, California - It was a dark, cold night in February in Santa Barbara County - in the low 30s - and freezing outside, as far as Mary Carmona was concerned.
As she worked alongside a contractor during a 12-hour night shift at the Cold Springs Creek Basin in Montecito, she pondered why she was there. She missed her family and just wanted to go home and sleep in the comfort of her own bed.
But going home wasn't an option for Carmona - at least not for the next 20-some days, as she and about 60 other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees set up temporary residence in the county to help clear vehicle-sized boulders, several feet of mud, trees and other debris from the community's basins.
It was a daunting task in less-than-ideal conditions, but these weren't even less than ideal; they were catastrophic.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, a mudslide ripped through the heart of Montecito - one of the most affluent communities within the county - jolting residents out of their beds and taking with it homes, property and the lives of 21 people. As of May, two children were still listed as missing and presumed dead.
The mudslide's path was set in motion in December 2017 by the Thomas wildfire - one of the largest wildfires in California's history - that scorched a path of more than 270,000 acres, or about 425 square miles, through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Without brush and vegetation to protect it, the fires that raged on the mountainsides left the areas below them vulnerable during the state's rainy season.
During the days and weeks after the mudslide in Montecito, several feet of mud covered the streets and caked the insides and outsides of homes. Cars and structures crumpled under the pressure of the mud, debris and hundreds of boulders that rained down from the mountainsides, overtopping the community's channels and basins.
Within a day of the mudslide, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a verbal debris removal mission to the Corps to clear Santa Barbara County's 11 basins, and the Corps got to work. The concern was if another major storm hit and the basins weren't cleared, more lives would be lost.
CALIFORNIA IS MY HOME
Born and raised in Los Angeles, but now living in El Monte, Carmona volunteered to deploy to support FEMA's Santa Barbara debris removal mission as a quality assurance representative. As a civil engineer technician, she had previously deployed with the Corps to Baton Rouge in 2016 - an experience, she said, that had changed her life.
While in Louisiana, Carmona worked with a woman who had lost everything in the floods, but yet the woman and her husband somehow still gathered the remaining resources they had left to help other people out of their flooded homes and provide them with water.
"Because of my experience there, I knew I had to go on a deployment again," Carmona said.
The day before the disaster struck Santa Barbara, Carmona had volunteered to deploy to Texas, where the Corps was still working to help relocate families into new homes following Hurricane Harvey.
"As soon as I heard the area engineer, John Stephens, needed people for the Santa Barbara mission, I gave him a call and asked if I could help," she said. "I know the people in Texas needed help, but Santa Barbara sounded like a better option. Not because of the distance, but because it's in my home - California."
After arriving in Santa Barbara, Carmona worked at two separate sites, but spent most of her time at the Cold Springs Creek Basin.
Initially, team members worked in pairs, she said, but by about the fourth night, they were on their own.
"All I remember was driving through pitch black streets," Carmona recalled. "I'm not usually afraid of the dark, but this had a very eerie feeling."
Some of the homes had lights - probably from a solar source, she said, but not enough to light the narrow roads.
"The only other light we had, aside from the headlights on my truck, were the spotlights, and the blue and red lights from squad cars at each of the checkpoints," she said. "I had to memorize certain landmarks to remind myself where to turn. Sadly, some of my points of reference were giant boulders that had come down from the hill."
It was during those cold nights that Carmona's mental and physical stamina were put to the test.
"I started questioning why I was there putting myself through the torture of working at night, driving through the dark streets all by myself," she said. "It was cold. I missed my husband, my mom and my nephew, whom I absolutely adore. I just wanted to get out of there and go home."
Just when she was feeling particularly low, Carmona said she met a young gentleman at a local restaurant. He looked distraught and kept looking at her, she said. He finally asked where she was working. She told him she was working in the Cold Springs area in Montecito. She then asked him if he lived there.
"He said 'No, but my girlfriend did. She died in the mudslide,'" Carmona recalled. "I said I was sorry and nothing more. I left feeling uneasy because I wished I would have said more. I should have asked him to sit down with me, so we could talk about his girlfriend. I could have at least asked what her name was."
In the days after the encounter with the young man, Carmona said she went back to the restaurant several times in the hopes she would run into him again. She even prayed she would cross paths with him again to tell him the things she initially wanted to say. But she never did.
"I still think about the young man ... I remember the fidgeting and the blank look on his face," she said. "It was the look of pure shock and with overwhelming reason."
Soon after, while having breakfast following one of her shifts, Carmona met a lady named, Judy.
"She asked me what I do, and I briefly explained my position," Carmona said. "Judy was so excited when I told her I was with the Army Corps of Engineers and told me to relay a message. She said, 'Please tell everyone at the Army Corps we all know the hard work you are doing. We are so thankful for it. You're our heroes.'"
During the conversation, Carmona learned that Judy had also lost someone close to her in the mudslide - her good friend and neighbor.
It was in those moments, Carmona said, she realized why she was meant to be in Santa Barbara.
"I was on the mission to meet Judy," she said. "I met her at the right time because I had been moping and feeling low. I will never forget the young man and Judy. They made it a little more tolerable. It was a good reminder as to why I volunteered to begin with."
RIGHT PEOPLE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Like Carmona, there were many people on the ground and those who worked behind the scenes to make the debris removal mission a success, according to David Kingston, the Los Angeles District's acting Emergency Management chief.
"An important factor was bringing the right people in with the right expertise," he said, which included those who could secure the contracts and the necessary permits needed quickly to start the work.
A total of $110.4 million was authorized to the Corps for the FEMA mission to remove the debris from Santa Barbara's 11 basins and 11 channels.
A team of the Corps' engineers, program managers, emergency management, contracting division and small business experts synchronized its efforts to quickly award contracts for the work, said Maj. Scotty Autin, LA District deputy commander.
"One hundred percent of the contracts went to small businesses," he said. "Of those, all but one went to California-based businesses. And the other used solely California-based sub-contractors. This allowed nearly all of these funds to remain in the state.
Their work ethic and drive were instrumental in helping the entire region return to some sense of normalcy."
Simultaneously, the Corps quickly secured the necessary regulatory permits to allow the county to dispose of its debris under the guidelines of the Clean Water Act.
In the initial phases, the Corps deployed about 65 employees to the Santa Barbara area to oversee the mission. Most of the employees worked seven days a week for 12- to- 18-hour shifts, many throughout the night, and were deployed for 30 to 60 days at a time to ensure the work stayed on schedule.
"Through the hard work of our agencies and small businesses, most of the basins were cleared out within the first few weeks," Autin said. "The Corps completed the work on all of the basins and channels April 18."
The Santa Monica Basin, which was the largest and most difficult to clear, was completed April 15. A plunge pool leading from the basin was cleared by April 18.
During the debris removal mission, more than 400,000 cubic yards of debris - about 30,000 truckloads - was removed from the basins and channels.
"To give you some perspective about how big that is, if you lined up each truckload of debris end-to-end, that line would stretch from Ventura to Oceanside," Autin said.
THE "WHAT IF'S"
John Stephens, area engineer for the Corps' office in Palmdale, shuddered at the thought of what would have happened had the Cold Springs Creek Basin - the one above Montecito that suffered the greatest amount of casualties - not been there.
The basins are designed and maintained to catch and stop some of the debris as is flows downhill from the mountainsides.
Many boulders the Corps cleared from the basins were the size of small SUVs and had to be split and broken up to be removed. Had the basins not existed, the situation would have been much worse and more lives would have been lost.
"The Cold Springs Creek Basin was just completely full of boulders," Stephens said. "If that basin wasn't there, that 24,000 cubic yards of debris would have gone down on the community and made things a lot worse. When you think of how important those basins are ... they save lives and property."
Because of the nature of the mission, Stephens said, everyone was fully engaged, from the Corps to its contractors and all of its local, state and federal partners.
"The most important aspect of this mission was working in partnership with FEMA, the California Offices of Emergency Services, and other state and local agencies," Autin said. "These partnerships were instrumental in ensuring success and making the residents of Montecito safe again."
"It felt like we were helping our own because it was so close and in our own backyard," Stephens said.
The Corps is partnering with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties on a Floodplain Management Services study. This will allow the Corps to provide a full range of technical services and planning guidance needed to support effective floodplain management.
"Our goal is to continue to build and maintain these vital relationships with our partners before, during and after a disaster," Autin said. "One of the ways we can continue to prepare is by working together before a disaster strikes."
Some of the studies could include investigating channel and debris basin capacities and floodplain projection. Future efforts may include conducting feasibility studies for formulation and implementation of flood risk management projects.
The most important aspect of the mission was helping the people of Santa Barbara, said Col. Kirk Gibbs, LA District commander.
"Our number one priority throughout the Santa Barbara debris removal mission was the life, safety and welfare of those affected by the disaster and to do everything in our power to aid in the recovery effort," Gibbs said. "The most rewarding thing was engaging with the people of Santa Barbara who needed our help and were so appreciative of the work that we did to make their community livable and safer again."
Note: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District participated in a press conference May 11 in Ventura, California, to update the community about the Corps' debris removal mission in Santa Barbara County, following the devastating mudslide Jan. 9 in Montecito. The Corps completed its work clearing debris out of 11 basins and 11 channels April 18. The press conference was an update from various local, state and federal agencies in regard to the overall debris removal mission in both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties following the December 2017 Thomas wildfire - the largest wildfire in California's history.