MONTECITO (CBSLA/AP) — An older couple missing since the mudslides swept through the Santa Barbara County town of Montecito have been found deceased, a family member confirmed.
The bodies of Jim and Alice Mitchell, ages 89 and 78, were found by rescuers, the couple’s 53-year-old daughter, Kelly Weimer, told CBS2’s Crystal Cruz Thursday. Jim had celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday. Their dog Gigi is still missing.
The Mitchells had not left their home because their house was under a voluntary evacuation order and not a mandatory order, Weimer said. Nearly every home on their block was completely destroyed and others were lifted and tossed from their foundation.
“They were in a voluntary evacuation area so they figured they were OK,” Weimer said. “They weren’t concerned. It’s not like anybody came around and told them to leave.”
Weimer had last spoke to her parents on Monday to wish her father a happy 89th birthday. The couple of more than five decades planned to stay at home because of the rain and have a quiet dinner.
Many Montecito residents 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.
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 because of deteriorating conditions, Rob Lewin, the county’s emergency management director said Thursday. It followed a cellphone alert that was 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 who have spoken with The Associated Press said they knew they lived in evacuation areas but chose not to leave.
The first slides tore through Montecito around 3:30 a.m. and then continued after the county cellphone alerts went out, destroying or damaging 400 homes. The vast majority of those homes fell under areas that had already been designated by authorities as under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders.
The warnings for the 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 the hills above neighborhoods.
“We sent out many, many, many alerts,” Lewin said.
Another emergency management official told the Los Angeles Times that county officials decided not to use the its push alert system to cellphones earlier out of concern that it might not be taken seriously.
“If you tell everyone to get out, everyone get out, the next time people won’t listen,” emergency manager Jeff Gater told the newspaper. “If you cry wolf, people stop listening.”
Officials defended their decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation order for the area that was hit hardest by the storm.
“This isn’t an exact science in terms of actually defining where something is going to happen,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said. “Obviously a lot depends on Mother Nature, on the magnitude of the rainfall, the magnitude of the mudslides and so forth, and I think what was put together by a team of people, meteorologists, Cal Fire, our Forest Service people, our firefighters and personnel from the flood district and so forth, made a best-guess estimate as to where this was going to occur, and as it turns out they were exactly right that this was going to hit.”
Brown said sheriff’s deputies went door to door in the mandatory evacuation area, knocking on 7,000 doors to tell residents to leave their homes hours before the storm swept through. Some refused.
At last report early Thursday morning, the death toll from the mudslides was at 17, with eight people missing, but those numbers were likely to change.
Overall, 28 people were injured. Twelve remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)