The Current

'I saw tree trunks roll up my driveway': What it's like to get caught up in California mudslides

A California resident and reporter speak about the chaos and fear they witnessed as the disaster unfolded.
A damaged house surrounded by large boulders and debris following mudslides due to heavy rains in Montecito, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via Reuters)

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For the people of California it is a catastrophe upon a catastrophe.

After the wildfires of recent months, powerful mudslides have claimed at least 17 lives, sweeping away people's homes and burying roads and infrastructure.

Kevin Rittner is a resident of Montecito, whose family was caught up in the disaster. 

"It was about 2:30 in the morning when the rain started, and I couldn't sleep," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"The power went out, and then you hear — it's an unforgettable sound — it sounds like the ocean if you've ever stood by it, but ten times louder. And you can't see anything, but there's flashes of light overhead, and you think 'Oh it's thunder and lightning' but it's not, it's transformers exploding."

Once the waters receded my driveway had somebody else's work truck in it.- Kevin Rittner, Montecito resident

Rittner says he could see "electricity sparking in the neighbourhood, as they blow through and take down the power lines."

"Through what ambient light you have, you see a river of water go right down Olive Mill Road, and the only sound is that roar, that dull roar and a rumble like a small earthquake."

Abadoned cars stuck in flooded water on the freeway after a mudslide in Montecito, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via Reuters)

"I saw three tree trunks roll up my driveway, and at that moment ... I'm like, 'Oh crap, this is much worse than anybody thought it was doing to be.'"

Rittner had a full house when the mudslide struck: his wife, three-week-old son, two-year-old son, as well as his father-in-law, mother-in-law and their dog.

It was immediately apparent that they wouldn't be able to escape through the front of the house, where the driveway was blocked.

'Nobody imagined how massive this was going to be and how destructive this was going to be,' says KSBY TV reporter Fabiola Ramirez of the California mudslides. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. via Associated Press)

"I ran to the back of the house... and there's already a torrent of mud coming down through the back yard. My mother-in-law comes through the hallway that leads to the back studio where they're staying, and she and the dog comes through, you can hear the mud break through the back door in the studio and basically moved so fast it slammed the doors to the studio shut."

Rittner's father-in-law was in the studio as the mud came in.

"I, probably stupidly, hauled myself through the back door into the yard where the river was already running — in sweats and Croc sandals — running to get him, through the water, and I can't get to him."

A firefighter searches for people trapped in mudslide debris, Jan. 10, 2018, in Montecito, Calif. At least 17 people have died after massive mudslides crashed through the area, early Tuesday morning. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"I get to the gate on the other side of the studio to try to get in there and yell at him and he says he's fine, he's on top of the bed but the mud has already risen the top of the bed and I'm already seeing debris flying by me on the right-hand side."

It was an hour and a half before rescue workers arrived, Rittner says. The mud didn't get into the main house, but they were "completely surrounded."

"Once the waters receded my driveway had somebody else's work truck in it, a big boulder — easily as big as the engine compartment on that truck — trees… propane tanks, patio furniture."

'Nobody imagined how massive this was going to be'

Rittner and his family got to safety, but not everyone has been so lucky.

California's KSBY TV reporter  Fabiola Ramirez says the county had put mandatory evacuation orders on areas they thought would be most affected. Other areas were in a warning zone, where evacuation was voluntary.

"The thing is nobody imagined how massive this was going to be and how destructive this was going to be," she says. "It came gushing down really, really fast. There was just no time."

Ramirez was on the scene when the mudslide happened, as she puts it: "driving around in the rain trying to keep a close eye on things."

"All of a sudden I see lightning, and the lightning hit a fire line breaker, and it was an explosion. This explosion lit up the whole sky."

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"You could hear cars crashing up against homes... because there was a glow in the sky you can see the trees falling one by one, just trickling down, falling."

"I could hear a girl screaming for help, and I could see people, you know, trying to get to the second floor, yelling out the window for someone to help them," she says.

"Fire crews rushing up and down the street trying to figure out where to go and who to save, because it was just chaos," Ramirez tells Tremonti.

"It was the worst thing I've ever experienced."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this page — including Brent Ward, a geologist who points to the California mudslides as a warning signal to Canada's west coast.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin, Ines Colabrese and Kori Sidaway and Calgary Network Producer Michael O'Halloran.