California mudslides happened as cellphone alerts went out

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.

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 people 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…

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