Mudslide survivors find hope in recovered belongings

LOS ANGELES — When a torrent of mud crashed through Mari Mitchel's bedroom in Southern California three months ago, it carried away everything from massive pieces of antique family furniture to a tiny pouch that held her wedding and engagement rings and a beloved pendant.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Mitchel had nearly lost all hope she would ever see her most treasured jewelry again.

But on April 3, the 65-year-old Mitchel got what she calls her "tiny miracle." The pouch filled with jewelry was plucked from a 6-foot (2-meter) pile of mud down the street from her house.

"My knees were shaking, and I was oh-my-goshing and jumping up and down," Mitchel said. "I cried tears of joy, disbelief and thorough happiness."

Months after the Jan. 9 mudslides killed at least 21 people and nearly wiped the small community of Montecito off the map, those who survived are still looking for and finding their belongings in the deep and hardened sludge. They lost loved ones, neighbors and houses in the catastrophe, which still looks like it happened yesterday. Two children remain missing.

Through the shock and the misery, a Facebook page called Montecito Disaster Lost & Found has become a ray of hope for many, a tiny bit of good amid a whole lot of heartache. Started a couple of days after the tragedy, the page has connected hundreds of lost items with their owners — everything from old family photos and wedding veils to a 400-pound (180-kilogram) hippo statue.

Items still unclaimed on the site include signed NFL helmets, a WWII canteen, a trumpet, an amazingly intact teacup and a wedding photo from the early 1900s.

Last week, Santa Barbara resident Sarah Eglin made one of the more incredible finds as she walked along a Montecito trail with her children. It was a zipped-up bag covered in mud, with just a touch of lace sticking out. It turned out to be a wedding veil and the underskirt of a wedding dress.

Eglin posted the find on the Facebook page and two days later, Montecito resident Karen MacDonald responded that they were hers; they had been swept away along with MacDonald's entire house.

"The thing that's surprising is it's been three months since the catastrophe, and you wouldn't expect stuff to still be turning up," said the 63-year-old MacDonald, who wore the veil and underskirt at her wedding 35 years ago.

They had been packed away ever since, perhaps waiting for the day when one of her two daughters decided to marry. The veil and underskirt are among only a handful of items the family has recovered.

"We treasure and we take comfort in what we've got because we lost so much," MacDonald said. "It offers some consolation."

Santa Barbara resident Amanda Hockham found a massive hippo statue in February while volunteering with a group called the Bucket Brigade, which helps clear mud from people's homes.

The hippo was missing one leg, lying on its side and caked in mud.

Hockham immediately took to the Facebook page: "Anyone missing a hippo?" she posted.

Soon enough, the 55-year-old Hockham connected with the owner, who had been desperate to find the statue. It had sentimental value because it was a gift to her late husband.

Using heavy equipment and a hoist, volunteers rescued the hippo, cleaned it with a power washer, and fitted it with a stump as a prosthetic leg — nearly completely restoring the statue to its former glory.

"A lot of people have absolutely nothing left," Hockham said. "If we can go find something — anything — and give it back, it feels really good."

Finding such personal items can be an important part of psychological recovery in the wake of a traumatic event, said Judith Fox, a professor and director of the University of Denver's International Disaster Psychology Program.

"They really are symbols of the life that they've led and one's life with one's family," Fox said. "For most people those are pretty important symbols, and to have that all wiped away is extremely traumatic."

Erin Doherty, who lives near Montecito in Santa Barbara, said she began the Facebook page after finding blue diamond earrings inside a pouch in a massive pile of debris while she was walking on the beach.

She put a photo of the earrings on Facebook in a post that was shared more than 10,000 times. It turned out the earrings belonged to a woman who died in the disaster with her husband after their home was swept away.

Doherty returned the earrings to the woman's tearful and grateful daughter, and realized it was just the beginning.

"I thought, 'This is going to become a big problem,'" said Doherty, who also ended up finding the Boy Scout uniform of a 17-year-old who's still missing.

After cleaning it, she gave the uniform back to his mother, who also has been able to recover his baby book.

"Everything was at the mercy of the mud," Doherty said. "It's absolutely impossible to comprehend the force of this thing until you've been there. You'll be walking through some trees, and you look 20 feet (6 meters) up, and there's somebody's hair dryer tangled up in the branches.

"This thing was a beast," she said.

Mitchel, the woman who recently recovered her jewelry, barely escaped the disaster with her own life.

She and her husband were standing in their bedroom in the middle of the night when it hit. A loud boom and the noise of the approaching mudslide had jarred them awake.

When the deluge punched through their bedroom wall, Mitchel said she and her husband were completely submerged before being slammed into separate corners of the room. The mud roared by them, through their French doors, out of the house and downhill.

Mitchel said they're grateful to be alive and for every single thing they have left.

"That mud ate things," Mitchel said. "The mountain came down on us, so it's a miracle that anything can be found."

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Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP

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