Quick Take:

With the ‘atmospheric river’ weather event approaching, here’s everything you need to know about staying safe from mudslides, landslides and debris flows in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The week of Jan. 24 is bringing a heightened risk of debris flows and mudslides. Residents in and below parts of the CZU Lighting Complex burn area are under evacuation warnings in advance of the atmospheric river weather event expected to begin on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

The most important thing to know about debris flows? Once you hear one — it sounds like a freight train — it’s too late. Emergency crews won’t always be able to get in to rescue people once the flow has started, so paying attention to evacuation orders is key.

Here’s what else you need to know to keep you safe:

Know your zone

The county has divided the areas at risk of debris flows into zones, which will determine evacuation status. You can check your address on this map to find your zone and risk level. If this map isn’t appearing correctly, click here.

Make a plan and stay informed

Know your evacuation route and destination where you will shelter. Plan alternative routes to your shelter site in case roads are blocked.

Sign up for emergency alerts, and consider a battery-operated radio. Sign up here for Santa Cruz Reverse 9-1-1 CodeRed to receive evacuation warnings and orders.

Pack ‘go bags’

Two men look at a map
Credit: via Pixabay

Pack two emergency kits, one quickly accessible in your house and one in your car. This requires extra care during the covid pandemic: be sure to include face masks in your evacuation go-bag.

Ready.gov has some insight into what you should pack in your emergency kit. They suggest storing your things in airtight plastic bags and to put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry plastic bins or duffel bags. Here’s what to pack:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Food (at least a three-day supply of non-perishables)
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Dust mask (to help filter contaminated air)
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
  • Wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
  • Manual can opener (for food)
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery

Depending on your needs, you may also consider packing these additional things in your go-bags:

  • Prescription medications
  • Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
  • Prescription eyeglasses and contact lens solution
  • Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes and diaper rash cream
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Cash or traveler’s checks
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
  • Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children

Leave when you get an evacuation order

Debris flows are dangerous: the Montecito debris flows killed more people than the massive Thomas fire that preceded it. Debris flows can hit places they haven’t been before and can return bigger or smaller than where they have been before, so don’t rely on historical experiences as they don’t necessarily inform the future.

Santa Cruz County officials are distributing this chart about these steps to take in advance of an evacuation order. The further away the order, the more time there is to prepare.

Steps to take if a debris flow is predicted within a certain time.
Steps to take if a debris flow is predicted within a certain time. Credit: Santa Cruz County

Evacuate if you think there’s any danger

Don’t wait to hear a warning if you think you’re at risk, especially if there’s been serious rainfall. This doesn’t mean you need to leave every time it rains though. The real danger is intense rain: about half an inch an hour, like being in a thunderstorm, according to USGS disaster scientist Suzanne Perry.

Wait to return

The county is only evaluating the risk and issuing evacuation orders of inhabited areas. If they don’t think anyone is living there, but you’re occupying it, you may not get the warnings you need. Additionally, the risk of debris flow near a home in the burn area may be serious and need remediation, so don’t move back in unless the site has been inspected by a geologist.

If you have no choice but to shelter in place . . .

Get to the highest ground you can, but stay indoors — if your house has an attic or second story that’s probably safest. Listen for unusual sounds such as cracking, breaking, or roaring, and watch for mud and rushing water.

Follow Mallory Pickett on: Twitter. Mallory brings deep expertise in environmental issues to Lookout, as well as national reporting experience that she will now apply in her hometown of Santa Cruz. She...