Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Connor McManigal was shaken awake by his father. Flash floods had forced Montecito Creek to erupt, sending torrents of muddy water barreling through the hillsides.

The two scrambled to escape. But once outside, they were swept up in the deluge and separated. McManigal, 23, was whisked nearly a mile away down the road. His 64-year-old father is still missing.

The mudslide that slammed into the family’s neighborhood, destroying homes and killing at least 15, happened suddenly in the early morning darkness. But it was not without warning.

For days, officials advised residents in areas burned by the Thomas fire that a coming storm could bring major mudflows. The McManigals’ neighborhood was under a voluntary evacuation order.

Many residents decided to stay. Some assumed the threat was overblown just weeks after the fire triggered similar calls to evacuate.

But when the earth began to move, it was too late. The power of the debris flow destroyed everything in its path and there was no time to flee.

“It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere with huge boulders, rocks, downed trees, power lines, wrecked cars,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.

The Montecito mudslides take a grim place as one of California’s deadliest flooding events in several years. Like several recent disasters, including the deadly wildfires in wine country, it has sparked debate about what could be done to get more people out of harm’s way.

Officials said in the days leading up to the storm, a team of people, including meteorologists, Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, local firefighters and flood district personnel, worked to estimate where the mudslides would hit.

“This isn’t an exact science in terms of actually defining where something is going to happen,” Brown said. “Obviously a lot depends on Mother Nature — the magnitude of the rainfall, the magnitude of the mudslides.”

Mandatory evacuation orders issued Sunday had focused on foothill communities with about 7,000 people above Montecito, areas closer to where the Thomas fire had burned and that had been rendered less capable of absorbing water and more susceptible to flooding. Deputies had gone door-to-door there Monday night.

Voluntary evacuation orders were issued at the same time for about 23,000 others as the storm approached. “Some residents chose to cooperate with those evacuations,” Brown said. “Many did not.”

Montecito’s troubles began Tuesday at about 2:30 a.m. when pounding rain overwhelmed south-facing slopes and flooded a swollen creek that leads to the ocean. Slabs of earth, boulders and waist-high mudflows careened into homes. Firefighters spent the first hours of daylight making rescues near Montecito Creek north of the 101 Freeway.

The neighborhood hit the hardest lies well below the Thomas fire’s burn area. Many residents had remained in their homes.

Bridget Bottoms said she hadn’t taken the call to evacuate seriously.

Standing on a door that had been ripped from its hinges, she shivered in her white hoodie. “It sounds foolish, but, it’s like, ‘How bad can it get?’”

Tom Fayram, deputy Santa Barbara County Public Works director, said it’s almost impossible to predict which areas will flood in the event of heavy rains. When debris fills up a channel, the water could break out and go anywhere. That’s why officials blanketed the entire area with evacuation warnings, he said, because “there was no way to tell, with the time we had, what’s safe and not.”

Mapping from the state watershed emergency response team and the U.S. Forest Service indicated there was a higher probability that debris would flow into areas above California 192, Fayram said.

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

The maps also recognized a serious threat below the highway, which is why officials issued mandatory evacuation warnings for the area north of the highway and voluntary warnings for the area to the south. Officials believe any type of warning — voluntary or mandatory — should be taken seriously.

There are also factors outside of anyone’s best guess. The 0.86 inches of rain that fell in less than 15 minutes came at an intensity no one predicted. The National Weather Service threshold for issuing a flash flood warning is 0.2 inches in 15 minutes and 0.3 inches in 30 minutes.

Jason Kean, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, said mudslides can travel fairly far on steep slopes like the hills above Montecito. “The threat is ongoing here, throughout the rest of the winter season and even into next year,” he said. “Just because it’s happened once doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of material to come down in future rainstorms.”

“We try to educate people as much as we can, but it’s a big challenge.”

For Montecito residents, the lesson is in the destruction.

“It feels like this was way worse than the fire,” said Susan Moe, who was awakened by her husband at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday to the sound of a roaring river. Water was hurtling across their backyard.

The couple hadn’t packed bags like they did when the Thomas fire raged nearby. In fact, they had given little thought to the rain that had sprinkled throughout Monday.

“We even played a card game before going to bed,” Moe said. “It was stress free.”