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Survivors of Montecito mudslides likely triggered by recent storm, research shows

Posted at 6:44 PM, Jan 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-18 00:31:13-05

For survivors of the Montecito mudslide and the Thomas Fire, the evacuations ordered this week as a storm battered the area forced victims to relive the trauma they experienced last year.

Research published last year in the Psychiatric Times found Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurred in 30 to 40 percent of survivors of natural disasters.

For Sarah Eglin, a Montecito resident since 2005, the recent storm was a haunting reminder of the debris flow that destroyed her community and killed her neighbors.

“I still can hear it,” Eglin said of the rain from January of last year. “As the rain gets to that level, my body starts to get tense and the hair on my arm raises.”

Since Eglin moved to Montecito nearly two decades ago, she and her family have survived the Tea Fire, Thomas Fire and the mudslide.

Just since last year, Santa Barbara officials said recently, much of the Montecito community has been evacuated at least six times for various weather-related emergencies.

“Any of us who go through an experience like this are changed,” said Dr. Monty Clouse, a member of Central Coast Critical Psychiatry and the California Incident Stress Management team.

Clouse is one of about two dozens licensed mental health professionals in California listed by Cal Fire SLO as a specialist in providing clinical assistance to people with PTSD related to natural disasters and emergencies.

He’s responded to countless California wildfires, the Northridge earthquake and even Hurricane Sandy, helping people in the midst of tragedy.

“Research shows that some people develop their resilience to repeated exposure to upsetting events and others have more difficulty as they encounter repeated upsetting events,” Clouse said.

Clouse’s point is that everyone responds to trauma differently, though the research does indicate natural disaster survivors are likely to suffer emotional duress for some time after the emergency.

Montecito resident Pat Sweem was evacuated this week due to the heavy rainfall but she said she kept her calm.

“I have neighbors, friends who really get worried because of what they went through before,” Sweem said.

But after living through the devastation last year, residents young and old are feeling the emotional toll.

Eglin, who teaches children at a local private school, said some of her students grieved along with her.

“When the rain started to fall one day, some of the kids started cheering but one girl sat there shaking and crying and I knew exactly where she was coming from,” Eglin said. “So I sat next to her and put my arm around her.”

Clouse said friends and family can help loved ones deal with that trauma simply by listening.

“It’s like having a loss, a major loss in life,” Clouse said. “It’s going to affect the person throughout their life, they’ll know it and remember it. But as time goes on, their emotions and outlook aren’t going to be so affected by it.”