My husband, children, and I spent the past two weeks with my parents and sister (and her family) in my hometown of Santa Barbara, CA. The weather was sublime (sunny and in the high 60s every day) and my family made us feel incredibly welcome. Our vacation was booked last fall, with the plan of taking my son to Disneyland for his fifth birthday. In the interim, Santa Barbara was hit with the double-whammy of California’s largest wildfire and the County’s overall deadliest incident in its history. We considered cancelling our visit when my parents were evacuated as the Thomas Fire drew near, but the Fire was nearly contained and the ash was clearing up one week into 2018. Then, on January 8 and 9, heavy rain pounded the scorched earth, prompting mudslides that killed 23 people.
While to outsiders it looked like Santa Barbara had just been dealt a bad hand by mother nature, there was plenty of human blame to go around. A Montecito Water main failed, adding millions of gallons of water to the rainfall that created a tidal wave of trees, boulders, and debris. Moreover, officials issued mandatory evacuations only for those living north of a major road, ignoring the known paths of the anticipated mudslides, which destroyed dozens of homes south of that road. In fact, 19 of the 23 people who lost their lives did not live in the mandatory evacuation zone. These errors add guilt and anger to the strong sense of despair wafting on Santa Barbara’s warm breezes.
When we touched down at the Santa Barbara Airport on January 13, we were met by the sight of a dear family friend sobbing in my father’s arms in front of sunny skies and waving palm trees. My children were thrilled to see their grandfather, as well as their grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins, and we had many memorable fun times during our weeks together. Still, beneath the laughter and games there was a somber tone to our holiday.
My whole life, the most common reaction I get when people visit Santa Barbara is: “I cannot believe people live here.” Nestled between the Los Padres National Forest (which I always believed inspired the line “purple mountains majesty,” although I recently learned that was Pike’s Peak) and the Pacific Ocean, the City has long forbidden skyscrapers and McMansions in favor of classic Spanish architecture and an abundance of public-use natural space. The restaurants, schools, beaches, and entertainment offerings are world-class. Even though I complained about the superficiality and inequality, from a very young age I understood how fortunate I was to grow up in such a beautiful place.
Montecito – with its canopy of native trees, sweeping gardens, long driveways, and web of creeks – is the epitome of the bucolic Californian lifestyle. It is no accident that many celebrities choose to live there. What bothered me most as a teenager was that Montecito – as well as most of Santa Barbara County – is a bubble, immune from and disinterested in the “real world.” There is little diversity, poverty, crime, or even weather extremes. That bubble was burst in the past month, as people who seemed to have everything were left with nothing. Although many have the means to rebuild their homes, others do not, and some lost loved ones that no amount of resources can bring back. My typically-blessed community has been shaken by this natural and man-made tragedy.
The Fire and mudslides were each front page national news for a day. Photos of devastation that bore little resemblance to the town I still consider “home” were on the news, but it felt very far away. And the next day, the world moved on to the next heart-breaking calamities – earthquakes, bombings, racist policies. Meanwhile, it took weeks to clear the major California highway through Montecito that separated masses of people from their families and jobs, and hundreds more were still evacuated from their homes when we returned to ours in D.C.
Tragedies happen every hour all over the world. I just heard on the radio that there have been eleven school shootings in the U.S. already this year. Each of these events thrusts individuals, families, and communities into mourning, akin to or worse than what I witnessed in Santa Barbara. What felt like “normal life” the day before is turned upside down. For many, it will never be the same. Insurance can help rebuild a home or repair a road, but it is a struggle to reconstruct a sense of security.
I have written before about my desire to give my children the gift of freedom from fear. From the moment they are birthed from my body I long to wrap myself around them to keep them safe. Last month’s events in Santa Barbara, which killed a number of children from the neighborhood where I grew up, are a sobering reminder that complete security is only an illusion. My family and I talked with our kids about the Fire and mudslides, but they are still too young to be too upset by the disasters (nor were they upset about missing out on Disneyland; I’m blessed with pretty happy-go-lucky children). Even though the devastation was just a few miles down the road, it still felt far away from where they were playing in the sunshine with their cousins. As they grow, I hope my children will contribute to compassionate responses to crises that touch them, but I hope those crises always seem very far away. More than that, I want to give my kids the resilience they will need to lift up their neighbors when tragedy someday strikes close to home. Back in my hometown last week, I was acutely aware of how comfortable I have become in my bubble. My family and I were spared from Santa Barbara’s recent disasters, but they were too close for comfort.