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The Farrell family reflects on two year anniversary of the Montecito mudflow

MONTECITO, Calif. - Many of us will never forget the unimaginable images to which we awakened in Montecito the morning of January 9, 2018.

Marco Farrell used his cellphone to capture the head of the mudflow as it raced past his family's home on Olive Mill Road hours before sunrise. That wall of mud and debris killed 23 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. Many businesses and properties in the foothills of Carpinteria were also badly damaged during the disaster, including Rose Story Farm.

Our crew caught up with Marco and his parents, Jeff and Gabrielle, on the two year anniversary of the disaster in their newly repaired home. They were able move back in at the end of 2019, along with their dog, Lucas.

"I shot it (the mudflow) because I knew that there was a very good chance that we were not going to survive," Marco explained.

Marco filmed the head of the flow at 4:00 a.m. that morning and kept the camera rolling capturing his ensuing panic as he raced back inside the house to wake his parents and get everyone to safety. His five minute-long video clip went viral, showing the world how bad the disaster really was.

Like dozens of others, the Farrell home was damaged but not destroyed and left carpeted in three feet of mud. 

"I got out of bed into a foot of mud," Jeff said. "It was up to the counters in the kitchen by the time it stopped rising."

The family huddled in their broken house for nearly two hours until help arrived.

Marco escorted NewsChannel 3's Beth Farnsworth and Kacey Drescher back to his home a day later. The images were stunning. Each room was coated and splashed with mud, feet deep and feet high. Gabrielle's once-tropical garden, filled with plumerias and palm trees, had been obliterated in brown muck.

"It was a scary time and the second anniversary reminds me of it but that's ok, it's past," Jeff said.

The family moved eight times while repairing their damaged home. They are grateful to friends for putting a roof over their heads, often for a month at a time. And, for two years, they chipped mud away from keepsakes and heirlooms, including Gabrielle's Our Lady of Lourdes medal, given to her by her father when she went off to college in Paris. She hadn't seen it since.

"She was in one of the muddy boxes, 52 years later," Gabrielle said, while holding the medal necklace in her hand. "So, my father was right, she would keep us safe."

"It's not finished, but it's home," Marco said. 

Jeff noted that they have nice, new neighbors on each side.

"Some of the personalities have changed and our house looks different but it's wonderful to be back here because it's home," Jeff said.

Marco admitted that it's tough getting used to certain sounds, like passing trucks on the 101.

"It's a low vibration rumble that's very similar to what the head of the flow sounded like."

He said acknowledging the similarity has helped his anxiety fade. At the same time, Marco attributes the county's investment in new technology for helping him sleep better at night.  

"Now they have the web cams with night vision on some of the debris basins. So, it's just incredible that we have access to this technology that two years ago didn't exist."

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Beth Farnsworth

Beth Farnsworth is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3.