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Storms continue to hit California, forcing evacuations in cities like Santa Barbara

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Veterinarian Matie McPeters was working in a vet clinic in Carpinteria, Calif., yesterday afternoon with some of her colleagues.

MATIE MCPETERS: And all of our phones go off. I don't know if you've ever gotten that emergency buzz.

SUMMERS: That buzz was an evacuation order due to heavy rains and flooding.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Carpinteria is just down the road from Santa Barbara, where Matie lives.

MCPETERS: You know, we start moving all of our appointments. And we're like, I'm evacuating. I'm, like, talking to one of my clients. I'm like, here's this rabies shot, but I got to run.

KELLY: So she hopped in her car - a Prius - to try to get home.

MCPETERS: It's about a 15-minute drive, and it just got to be zero visibility.

KELLY: She got off the freeway.

MCPETERS: Completely hydroplaned coming off of it.

KELLY: And she turned down a street. This is in one of the flatter areas of Santa Barbara.

MCPETERS: I mean, my little Prius - the water's coming up, and I fear it's coming over my wheel well. So I'm afraid I'm going to, like, completely flood my car.

SUMMERS: So she found a small high spot and pulled over. She left her car.

MCPETERS: Still in my scrubs. I was like - and I just started walking home.

SUMMERS: Matie took some videos as she walked. In the videos, the streets look like rivers. And the sidewalks - they're covered in murky, brown water.

MCPETERS: It was coming up to my knees. And it smelled like the Pacific. Like, I was literally walking in the ocean. And I was easily, gosh, I want to say, like, half a mile in from the beach.

KELLY: She told us she was scared.

MCPETERS: Honestly, what I honestly thought is that I was going to get electrocuted. I genuinely thought that something was going to drop in the water.

KELLY: Matie walked for about a mile and eventually made it home. It's on a hill, so it was dry. And when we caught up with her earlier, she was hunkered down with her family - no power but otherwise OK.

SUMMERS: As winter storms continue to pummel the state, large portions of Santa Barbara County saw evacuation orders, including the entire hillside community of Montecito.

KELLY: The area has been absolutely soaked by the recent parade of storms. And there is fear that could trigger a repeat of what happened five years ago, when mudslides and debris flows killed 23 people and destroyed scores of homes.

SUMMERS: Reporter Matt Guilhem of member station KCRW went to one of those evacuation shelters in Santa Barbara earlier today and joins us now. Hi, Matt.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: Hello. Hey.

SUMMERS: So, Matt, what is the situation in Santa Barbara right now?

GUILHEM: I mean, it rained for nearly 24 hours straight. Lots of roads flooded. Today there's been a little bit less rain, but even so, many roads remain closed. School in the county was canceled today. And people are just kind of making sense of the storm. Many people had to leave their homes due to those mudslide fears that were mentioned earlier.

SUMMERS: And yeah, as we mentioned, you were at an evacuation center earlier. I'm assuming you talked to people there. What did they tell you?

GUILHEM: You know, they had a lot to say. Lots of people were stranded. Yesterday afternoon, when the shelters first started opening, not a lot of people were showing up. But as that storm kept pounding the region and the rain came and the roads were closing down, I mean, suddenly, it dawned on a lot of folks that they were not going to be able to make it home. I met retiree Mitch Bernstein. He's from Solvang, just north of Santa Barbara. He drove down yesterday to go to a doctor's appointment. And, well, he's still here.

MITCH BERNSTEIN: I didn't think I'd get trapped. Everything just closed up. It rained so hard in just, like, an hour, maybe 2 hours. And every possible way out of Santa Barbara was plugged up, closed, flooded - impossible to leave the area.

GUILHEM: But he made do. I mean, he stopped at a Costco before coming to the evacuation center. He got some sweets, a pillow, and he's still riding things out with a good attitude.

BERNSTEIN: Everybody here is just so friendly. And they feed you here. They provide everything that you need. Even the cots were comfortable.

SUMMERS: Wow. It sounds like he's really just rolling with it there. But, Matt, he also mentioned the transportation problems with closures and flooding. What else is happening there?

GUILHEM: I mean, we have been lucky so far. The only major sort of slide or earth movement we've had was north of the city. A rockslide has shut down the northbound 101 Freeway. I'll let Rin Hardin, another stranded person at the evac center, fill you in on that.

RIN HARDIN: The net holding back the rocks has come down. So there's, you know, these - we kind of carved into a mountain, and there's tiny rocks that'll come down all the time. We put a big mesh net to keep them back. And that itself has come down.

GUILHEM: Now, officials haven't been able to give any sort of definite timelines about when that slide might be cleared. There's whispers of perhaps later tonight, but Hardin says the slide is providing some perspective.

HARDIN: I think we really have to start thinking about, with these extreme weather changes that we're getting, where we're going and how we're building for more stability.

GUILHEM: I think this unprecedented rain is going to get a lot of people thinking.

SUMMERS: So that is Santa Barbara, where you are. But what's going on in the rest of the state? What are conditions like there?

GUILHEM: Well, south of Santa Barbara, in Ventura County, they've seen flooding. And the Ventura River is overflowing and flooding some RV parks along its banks. Streets are impassable in a lot of places there. Up north, authorities in Sacramento - they're keeping an eye on the levees in that region. One breached in an earlier storm. That's been a big concern for folks who live near that. And people who live along the Russian River north of San Francisco are also evacuating because of flooding in that area. That's one of the most flood-prone rivers in California. In Santa Cruz, they are cleaning up from an earlier storm that hit and caused widespread flooding in that region. Many businesses and homes were just really sort of wiped out there, too.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, Matt, how's the forecast looking for the rest of the week?

GUILHEM: Not great. More rain is in the forecast, and additional storms are likely to roll in Friday. We might even see some next week, as well.

SUMMERS: Wow. All right. That's KCRW reporter Matt Guilhem in Santa Barbara. Matt, thank you.

GUILHEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Guilhem is a native of the Inland Empire. After growing up in the region, he went north to Berkeley for university and earned a degree in English. Matt's passion for radio developed late; he hosted a program while abroad in 2011 and knew he had found his calling. Matt started at KVCR as an intern in 2013; he now serves as both a reporter and host for the station. You can hear him regularly most weekday afternoons on All Things Considered, occasionally filling in on Morning Edition, and filing news reports for both programs.