Many Californians in the area hit hardest by this week's deadly mudslides 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.
Wireless emergency alerts are cellphone messages sent to everyone in a region, similar to the Amber alerts that are sent to cellphone users in specific areas when authorities are trying to find missing children.
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 and killing at least 17 people. 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."
Experts say it is important for emergency management officials to warn as many people as possible about potential threats, but disasters can change course in an instant.
"Disasters are very dynamic in danger. They can change from minute to minute," said Scott Somers, an emergency management professor at Arizona State University. "Just because an area can be safe at 1 o'clock in the afternoon doesn't mean it is going to be safe at 3 p.m."
Jim and Alice Mitchell, whose house was swept away when the flash floods cascaded through their neighborhood, had not left their home because their house was under a voluntary evacuation order and not a mandatory order, their daughter, Kelly Weimer said Wednesday. 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," said Weimer, who has been frantically searching for her parents for more than a day. "They weren't concerned. It's not like anybody came around and told them to leave."
Officials said that generally when mandatory evacuation orders are issued, there is an imminent threat to life or property. For areas with voluntary warnings, the threat still exists but it is in the near future.
Weimer, 53, 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. Weimer hasn't heard from them since and pictures from the area show their home on Hot Springs Road was completely gone.
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.
Officials across California said it is critical for residents to heed evacuation warnings as early as possible and be prepared to immediately evacuate if they are in a warning area. In Los Angeles, teams evaluate potential threat areas by examining the potential road blocks, slope erosion and the possibility of deadly conditions and then decide which areas should be under mandatory evacuation orders or voluntary warnings.
"We understand the impact there is to people to leave their homes and their belongings. We do not take issuing evacuations lightly," said Capt. Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
When their home of 40 years was under threat from the wildfire last month, Marco Farrell and his parents evacuated and remained away for more than a week. This time, a voluntary evacuation order was issued for their area and the family discussed leaving but decided to ride it out.
"There was evacuation fatigue from the fire," Farrell acknowledged. "I would have preferred for them to leave and in hindsight we should have left. I don't know how I got lulled."
What will he do the next time there's an evacuation warning? "Definitely go," he said.