It’s been nine months since the deadly mudslide in Montecito and the volunteer group known as the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade is nearing the end of its work.
Twenty-one people were confirmed dead in the Jan. 9 mudslide and the search continues for two more, John “Jack” Cantin, 17, and Lydia Sutthithepa, 2.
“We’re out here today trying to complete the search for Jack and Lydia. They were lost in the debris flow,” said Abe Powell, Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade Executive Director.
The Bucket Brigade has roughly five more properties to sort through.
“We’re in the area where most of the victims and survivors were found,” Powell said. “Lydia lived about a quarter mile away from here, right on the creek, and Jack lived maybe 150 yards from here.”
Powell and other volunteers are sifting through the untouched mud and debris on Olive Mill Road, making sure Cantin and Sutthithepa are not there.
They’ve been searching for months.
“I think we’ve all had pauses during this over the last, what’s it been, nine months, really?” said Ann Burgard, Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade Team Captain.
“Since January 28th, we’ve worked in over 85 homes. We’ve also cleared a 44-acre open space and we estimated we’ve moved over 4 million buckets full of dirt,” Powell said. “We’ve gotten down to these chunks of mud that are actually really hard now and when we break them up, they come apart in pieces and you can see where the old grade used to be.”
Along the way, they’ve come across sentimental items.
“The other day in a pile just like this, we found one of the families of the deceased’s birth certificates, photo album, and also ultrasound pictures,” Powell said.
When asked why he does it, Powell said he’s from the area and, like many others in the brigade, is a parent.
“I know if my kids had been swept away in this debris flow and that they hadn’t been found that I would be going absolutely crazy looking at these piles of debris and thinking, ‘Are my kids underneath there?’ and that thought gives me a considerable amount of empathy and sadness for the families that are going through this,” he said.
The brigade has about two acres worth of digging left, a task they plan to tackle over the next few weeks.
“If we can’t find them, we will have a very high reasonable level of certainty that they were swept into the ocean. In a lot of ways, that would be some comfort to know that they’re not out here under the mud but that they were in the ocean and at least we could have some form of commemoration there,” Powell concluded.
The nonprofit is trying to raise funds for equipment rentals and other costs associated with clean up efforts. Visit the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade website for more information.