Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The La Conchita disaster

I wrote this in February 2005. Unfortunately, it's a true story.

This morning, I woke up on the side of the road to go to work. The storm
closed the rest area I usually sleep at. Another hour south, I pass Santa
Barbara, Montecito, and Carpenteria, then head out into no man's land
between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Not too far into Ventura
County on the east side of Highway 101 is a small town called La Conchita. It's weird how I used to drive past the tiny community every day and not think about it.

On January 10th, La Conchita had a series of mudslides. The last one
culminated in ten people killed and 15 homes destroyed. You could still
see the tops of the homes buried under the mud. The town smelled
terrible, worse than when they dredged up the beach in Santa Barbara to
move the toxins somewhere else. I can't see how anyone could continue
to live there because of the smell alone, not even thinking of the
possibility of a worse mudslide.

I did some research on the small town in Ventura County. It appears it has a history. The first written account I could find was of 1865, where
people warned builders that the area is prone to dangerous mudslides.
Twice in the 1880s, mudslides buried part of the town. Not sure if any
deaths occured, but Union Pacific had two train cars buried by one of the

The current town is built over another mudslide. In the 1930s, a
California geological official told the press that he wondered how anyone
got permits to build in that area. He warned of a long history of
mudslides, saying that the mountain above the town was under the ocean
only 30k years ago (a short time in geological history), and the soil
there was too soft to be safe.

That said, a wall was erected to protect the town from a mudslide. Part
of the wall was destroyed by a mudslide in 1995, and the most recent one
went through the wall like a large wave burying a kid's sand castle.
One guy lost his wife and three children. While going out for ice cream,
he heard a thunderous roar and ran back to his house to find it buried
under the dirt and mud from the mountain behind the town. Along with
rescue workers, he worked for hours trying to get his family out of the
mud, and even heard their last screams, but nobody could tell where the
muffled noises were coming from until they had suffocated under the mud.
"It was heaven on earth," one of the denizens told the reporter. He told
them that nobody ever locked their doors, and people would watch each
other's kids and pets. Everyone knew everyone and everyone helped each
other out. Now, most of the people have moved out, but some stay behind.

They're awaiting a decision by the state whether or not the town will be
condemned. They all moved in knowing that they could neither get a
mortgage nor insurance for their houses for the companies all knew it was
a dangerous area. California geologists repeatedly called it the most
dangerous town in California. Needless to say, it was weird, seeing a town I drove by every day, barely noticing its existence, getting covered in mud with most of its residences still in their homes. If this story has any meaning, it would be to take the advise of geologists seriously.

This image is taken during the 1995 mudslide. I will leave it up to you to decide if you want to view those images.


Blogger Jason said...

When I lived in the Goleta Valley and worked in downtown Santa Barbara about eight years ago, I naively looke at buying a house in La Conchita -- priced at the stunningly low (even for then) $199K. Thankfully several friends who'd lived in the area a long time convinced me it wasn't a wise move. The landslide was horrible. I just hope anyone there who has kids has moved out.

5/24/2005 10:08 AM  
Blogger The Zombieslayer said...

That would have really sucked Jason if you bought that house.

When I went by that time, the stench was almost unbearable. Have you ever smelled a septic tank that has overflowed and poured back into a house? Well, that's what La Conchita smelled like, but the whole town had that smell. I'll never forget that.

The saddest part though was hearing the father of that family describe losing his family. And to think he could hear their last cries but nobody could tell where they were coming from is horrible.

5/24/2005 9:27 PM  

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