MONTECITO, Calif. - This Thursday, local residents will commemorate the second anniversary of the Montecito mud and debris flow disaster of 2018 which took the lives of 23 people and damaged or destroyed more than 300 homes.
The bodies of two children, Jack Cantin and Lydia Suttithepa, remain missing.
"War zone" is one way to describe the area but that's slowly changed, thanks in part, to the Bucket Brigade, a non-profit grassroots group that gained heroic strength with thousands of volunteers of all ages.
Today, while driving through the foothills of Montecito, you'll see prominent scars from that horrific, deadly night, two-years ago on January 9; massive boulders and tree limbs remain piled high on a number of parcels where homes once stood. Walls splattered with mud lines mark the creek's raging power that night as it blew out its banks.
Amid the empty parcels and isolated homes, there is now a calm and a sense of community healing. And, much of the credit goes to anyone who picked up a shovel or a bucket over the past two years and volunteered with the Bucket Brigade.
"When you look at what the Bucket Brigade did," recalled Abe Powell, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Bucket Brigade. "Five neighbors called in a small group of friends and, together, they leveraged thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a massive relief and recovery effort to help the community in what was the biggest natural disaster in county history."
An army of locals with tools, machinery, heavy hearts and elbow grease spend their weekends and weekdays cleaning up nearly 200 properties, clearing dirt and debris from 66-acres of public open space, and chiseling hardened mud from the trunks of roughly 1,000 native trees in public, open spaces.
The Bucket Brigade is also credited for blazing a new Safe-Route-To-School walking path in the damaged area; oversaw a paid Workforce Development crew of more than 20 jobless people to restore trails; and helped create and install memorial benches for victims and survivors.
Powell said for him, personally, returning with a homeowner to their destroyed property -- surrounded by strangers -- was the most haunting and powerful image.
"Just being on-site with a number of homeowners coming back to their property and, for them to come back to a destroyed property and to feel so alone and to see 50 people there with shovels and machines that they don't even know .... that are just going to work to help make it right for them and the emotional feeling of that is what sticks with me the most."
A home on the 200 block of Olive Mill Road is the first to be rebuilt in the mud ravaged community. The Bucket Brigade worked for weeks to help clear the devastated parcel (along with the tireless Ann Burgard, who worked her personal earth mover on the majority of damaged parcels throughout Montecito).
The non-profit organization is building on its Montecito model in hopes of inspiring all local communities to band together.
"Times are challenging and this country is really divided," Powell said. "But what we learned after 1/9 was, we're all in this together whether we like it or not. And, when we recognize that and pull together in a caring way, really good things happen."
Raising Our Light, an Evening of Remembrance, Connection and Hope will be held Thursday, January 9 at Westmont College. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. with a reception starting at 7:00 p.m.
For more information about the Bucket Brigade, click here: https://sbbucketbrigade.org/