Helping Hands in Montecito

By Bob Hazard   |   February 8, 2018
(from left) Sofia Sasseen, Tayan Dean, Anja Fassbind, Chloe Nydan of Girl Scouts troop 55504, Vieja Valley Elementary School, Santa Barbara

It has been nearly a month since we were awakened in the middle of the night, without electrical power, to the drumbeat of a pounding rainstorm and the roar of a descending mountain of mud and boulders. 

As is usual in a natural disaster, there were scenes of personal heroism from unnamed first responders and nearby neighbors helping neighbors. Every resident has a personal story of what happened to them in the middle of this tragedy. Now, as the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudflow slide off the pages of national news organizations, we are left with Montecito somewhat broken in structure but not in spirit.

Rebuilding Montecito

For a few, the natural reaction may be to collect whatever insurance money is available and move on with life, perhaps even somewhere else. Most of us, however, recognize the benefits of living here and desire to play a role in restoring Montecito: to rebuild stronger and better than it was before.

The Bucket Brigade

Jimmy Jennings and Abe Powell, co-founders of the Bucket Brigade at the Montecito Oaks mud cleanup site
Abe Powell, leader of the Bucket Brigade

Recently, Abe Powell, chairman of the board of the Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD), and his friend Jimmy Jennings, organizers of the Montecito Bucket Brigade, led some 350 volunteers into the flood-and-mud-ravaged Montecito Oaks neighborhood – a block east of Olive Mill Road, north of North Jameson Lane – with charming street names such as Santa Clara Way, Santa Elena Lane, Santo Tomaso Lane, and Santa Isabel Lane.

Typical Montecito Oaks homes sit on half-acre lots, and most remain covered in mud and muck with limited access to driveways, garages, and doorways. Owners have a difficult time entering their properties, even just to evaluate the damage or remove prized personal possessions.

Abe Powell’s Bucket Brigade arrived on the scene, accompanied by earthmovers, bulldozers, and backhoes, manned by volunteers with tote bins, shovels, boots, mud gear, masks, gloves, hard hats, food, drinks, and smiles, and offered to help residents remove and pile up mud and debris. The volunteer services and equipment were offered without charge to distraught homeowners who have lost everything. It was a scene that brought even the strongest of us close to tears. How great is that?

Hugging and Helping

Tom and Linda Cole, Sharon Bradford, and Josiah Hamilton at the Bucket Brigade Site
Bucket Brigade mud removal in Montecito Oakes

Residents such as Sharon Bradford, Tom and Linda Cole, and Josiah Hamilton, volunteered for the backbreaking work of the Bucket Brigade, not because of publicity, but because they care about their neighbors and want to help with recovery. They describe their role as “community servants.” Tom and Linda have spent 25 years working on emergencies in this country and in Africa and have the expertise as both knowledgeable worker bees and caregivers.

The Bucket Brigade quickly discovered that the lot sizes in Montecito Oaks are too small to amass the mammoth mud mounds covering these homes. By working with Rob Lewin and the County Office of Emergency Management, they hope to find a way this week to load the mud piles already accumulated at curbside into County trucks, and transport it to appropriate public dump sites, at no cost to private property owners. This would allow Bucket Brigade volunteers to assemble the rest of the mud at curbside next Saturday and repeat the process, until all the debris and mud has been removed.

Concurrently, other teams of Bucket Brigade volunteers were dispatched to the hard-hit La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center to clear mud and dirt off the grounds at the top of El Bosque Road. More volunteers assisted neighbors with destroyed and damaged homes along San Leandro Lane and Glen Oaks Drive. Volunteers uncovered stuffed animals, shoes, fishing rods, tires, lounge furniture, and purses – all reminders of the nearly 400 residences destroyed or damaged.

Other Helping Hands

Matt Boneck lends a hand
Cleaning up mud with the Bucket Brigade

One removal contractor – Matt Boneck – told the story of a police officer from St. Louis, whose first name he thought was Charmaine (last name unknown), who rescued an older couple from the roof of their home on January 9 in the Montecito Oaks neighborhood. Two weeks later, the emergency police officer came back from St. Louis to personally deliver a bouquet of flowers to the stunned couple in Montecito, with a note telling them: “I will never forget you!”

How heartwarming is that?

Matt also told the story of helping Victoria Riskin, well-known Montecito opinion shaper, leader of Human Rights Watch, former board chair of Antioch University, and president of the Writer’s Guild of America West, and her husband, television, film, stage writer, and producer, David Rintels, sift through the mud of their totally destroyed home on hard-hit Randall Road, looking for any signs of their previous life. Miraculously, Matt uncovered a treasured drawing of Henry Fonda, one of many in a priceless collection of lifetime memories for Victoria and David.

Girl Scouts Troop 55504

My wife and I drove down Coast Village Road from Montecito Oaks and spotted members of a Girl Scouts troop, from Vieja Valley Elementary School in Santa Barbara, standing near Giovanni’s Pizza at 1187 CVR. There stood four young Girl Scouts – Chloe Nydan (in pigtails), Anja Fassbind (ball hat), Tayan Dean, and Sofia Sasseen – holding a banner that read: “Cookie Time

The girls were there to join the parade of Montecito residents expected to show up that afternoon and evening for the Coast Village Association’s “Shop Mob” campaign in support of Coast Village Road businesses. The Girl Scouts troop leader proudly noted that “One-hundred percent of the proceeds from our Girl Scouts cookie sales this weekend will be donated to the Montecito Mudslide Disaster Relief Fund” – another heartwarming act of community kindness.

Little Alex’s to the Rescue

How can one not want to live in a community where Lynette and Dan Briner, owners of Little Alex’s, a Mexican food fixture in Montecito for almost 30 years, sloshed through the muck to deliver tamales, chile rellenos, chips, and salsa to 85 dazed guests, stranded on the first day of the disaster at the 60-room Montecito Inn, waiting to be evacuated in National Guard trucks? 

Lompoc School Students Aid Montecito Mud Victims

Montecito resident Ginger Salazar is a mother of four children, member of the Board of Trustees of the Santa Barbara Foundation, former board member of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, and a former student at Lompoc High School, where she received aid from the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation to attend Stanford University, reports that the student government bodies at Lompoc and Cabrillo High schools have raised money for the families of Montecito high-school students who were victims of the mudslide.

Said one Lompoc student, “Even though we know that kids in Montecito are much richer than we are, we still need to show them that we care.” On Wednesday, the principal and student body president of Lompoc High School traveled to Santa Barbara High School to meet with SBHS principal John Becchio and present a check to the SBHS student president.

Talk about heartwarming.

Those are just some of the examples of a village, glued together not by its disastrous mud and debris, but by the simple kindnesses of residents and neighbors, eagerly taking care of one another, sharing the pain, and building a new and better place – together.


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