Officials from Santa Barbara County in California said on Wednesday that emergency alerts warning of the dangerous mudslides were not sent out to cell phones until the flooding began in Montecito County.
The first message was sent out on Tuesday at 3:50 a.m. to registered cell phones in the area, which was already under voluntary and mandatory evacuations, the Los Angeles Times reported. The evacuations due to the heavy rainfall that caused the devastating mudslides are the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.
Santa Barbara County's emergency manager, Jeff Gater, said the alert was sent out because of deteriorating conditions and followed one issued by the National Weather Service. Officials had just expected heavy rain, but the rainstorm was much worse than expected.
It's unclear how many people actually got the alert. But by the time it was received, tons of mud, trees, rocks and other debris rolled down the torched hills from the Thomas Fire, the largest fire on record in California. Since the mudslides began, at least 17 people have died and more than 100 homes have been destroyed.
The Thomas Fire in December and the wine country fires in October showed the flaws in the emergency warning systems officials are trying to fix. Some of these problems include cell phone alerts not being received to those who are targeted and warnings on television not being properly broadcasted.
The county did issue a number of warnings about the possibility of mudslides on the county’s websites, social media, news outlets and community information emails in the days leading up to the storm. There were more than 200,000 emails and other warning messages sent out, but the county did not use the push alert systems to cell phones because they thought it might not be taken seriously, Garter said.
"If you tell everyone to get out, everyone get out, the next time people won't listen," Gater told the Los Angeles Times. "If you cry wolf, people stop listening."
The deadly natural disasters in California over the past few months have ignited debates on how to warn the public. More than 40 people died from the wine country fire, and two people died in the Thomas Fire.
Gater was also concerned that the cell phone alerts would change residents' minds about evacuating, especially in the early morning hours when many people were asleep.
"A lot of people don't listen to their phones when they go to bed," he said. "That's why we messaged people on Sunday for something that was 30 hours away."
Mandatory evacuation orders issued Sunday were for specific communities above Montecito County, home to about 7,000 people. These areas were closer to where the Thomas Fire had burned. Voluntary evacuation orders were issued at the same time for about 23,000 other people in some of the neighborhoods where mudflows killed people and buried homes.
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