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News Story
Updated: 01/12/2018 01:19:00AM

California mudslides happened as alerts went out

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This aerial photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California on Tuesday destroyed over a 100 houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead. (Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

An emergency crew member works near a home damaged from storms in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

A car sits stranded in flooded water on Highway 101 in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged and several people were killed Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This January 2017, photo provided by Kelly Weimer, shows Jim Mitchell, 89, with his wife, Alice Mitchell, 78, and their dog, Gigi. The Mitchell's and their dog have been missing since Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, when their Montecito, Calif., home was swept away by the torrent of mud, trees and boulders that flowed down a fire-scarred mountain and slammed into the coastal town in Santa Barbara County. (Kelly Weimer via AP)

An emergency crew works near a home after storm damage in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue crew work on a car trapped under debris in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged and several people were killed Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

An emergency crew member works near a home damaged from storms in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

A member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue crew works near a car trapped under debris in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Dozens of homes were swept away or heavily damaged and several people were killed Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mud, boulders, and debris that destroyed homes that lined Montecito Creek near East Valley Road in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California on Tuesday destroyed over a 100 houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows the cleanup of mud and debris in front of the Coral Casino and Biltmore Hotel along Channel Drive in Montecito, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched grimy debris and ruins for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed houses, swept cars to the beach and left more than a dozen victims dead. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

By MICHAEL BALSAMO

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Many Californians in the area hit hardest by this week’s deadly mudslides did not heed warnings for hours and days by emergency officials encouraging them to evacuate their homes — and then received cellphone alerts of imminent slides when the massive streams of debris were already heading toward them or had already hit their neighborhoods.

Wireless emergency alerts are cellphone messages sent to everyone in a region, similar to the Amber alerts that are sent to cellphone users in specific areas when authorities are trying to find missing children.

The alert sent by Santa Barbara County officials to all those in mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas went out around 3:50 a.m. Tuesday, Rob Lewin, the county’s emergency management director said Thursday. It followed a cellphone alert sent by the National Weather Service, he said.

There has been no outpouring of complaints from people that wireless warnings should have been sent out earlier, and residents of affected areas spoke with The Associated Press said they knew they lived in evacuation areas but chose not to leave.

The first slides tore through Montecito about 3:30 a.m. and continued after the county cellphone alerts went out, destroying or damaging 400 homes and killing at least 17 people. The vast majority of those homes were in areas already designated by authorities as under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders.

The National Weather Service sent out four wireless emergency alerts in various areas of Santa Barbara County between 2:30 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said.

The warnings for residents to leave had been issued for days before the mudslides through social media, news media and community information emails about the potential for mudflows from the huge wildfire scar in hills above neighborhoods. Sheriff’s deputies also knocked on doors in the mandatory evacuation area to warn residents to leave.

Another emergency management official told the Los Angeles Times that county officials decided not to use the its push alert system to cellphones earlier for concern it might not be taken seriously.

“If you tell everyone to get out, everyone gets out, the next time people won’t listen,” emergency manager Jeff Gater told the newspaper. “If you cry wolf, people stop listening.”

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown defended the timing of the wireless emergency alert, saying they are supposed “to be used to notify someone of an active incident that is occurring.”

“It was activated at the appropriate time actually when the event was occurring,” Brown said at a news conference Thursday.

Controversy over the use of wireless emergency alerts during disasters emerged in California in October when a wildfire ripped through Sonoma County, killing 40 people.

Officials decided against sending a wireless alert as the fire raged. Because of the broad reach of the alerts, they said they believed the message would have panicked people who were not in danger and triggered mass evacuations that would have snarled traffic and delayed emergency vehicles.

Jim and Alice Mitchell, who were both killed after their Montecito home was swept away when flash floods cascaded through their neighborhood had not left because their house was under a voluntary evacuation order, their daughter, Kelly Weimer said Wednesday. Nearly every home on their block was destroyed. Others were lifted and tossed from their foundation.

“They were in a voluntary evacuation area so they figured they were OK,” said Weimer. “They weren’t concerned. It’s not like anybody came around and told them to leave.”

Officials said that generally when mandatory evacuation orders are issued, there is an imminent threat to life or property. For areas with voluntary warnings, the threat still exists but it is in the near future.

Santa Barbara officials defended their decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation order for the area hit hardest by the storm.

“This isn’t an exact science in terms of actually defining where something is going to happen,” Brown said.

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Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, John Antczak and Frank Baker in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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