In the days since a God-sized scoop of mountain came raining down on La Conchita, a crushed guitar case, a twisted mountain bike and a flattened volleyball lie in a pile of debris like mangled memories of better times in this seaside community.
Ten lives lost. Hundreds forever changed. And now residents have had to answer one question posed by outsiders over and over again:
“Why do you live here?”
Clearly, residents were aware of the danger of mudslides. According to Jeffrey Hemehill, Ph.D. candidate with the UC Santa Barbara Geography Department, the town has a recorded history of mudslides dating back to the late 1800s, including one in 1995, which destroyed nine homes but took no lives.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you see?” implored Dan Alvis, 58, whose brother, Michael “Tony” Alvis, 53, was killed in the Jan. 10 mudslide. Alvis gestured across Highway 101 to the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean. “There (are) 8-to-10-foot swells out there right now. My brother and I are surfers. That’s what we live for.”
Tony Alvis was an outdoorsman who owned nearly 40 horses and mules, and would lead overnight excursions into the Los Padres Mountains. His website, once dedicated to his horseback trip business, has turned into a memorial for a man whose love for nature ran deep. Below one photo of Tony Alvis riding through a mountain pass on horseback, a caption reads:
“You can see what man has made from a car, but you can only see what God has made from the back of a horse.” — Charles M. Russell.
Charles Elsass, a retired postal worker and 31-year resident of La Conchita, is not pleased with how he and his neighbors have been characterized by the media.
“Like we’re a bunch of crazy people for wanting to live here,” said Elsass, a slender man with a gray beard. “This is the only place on the beach (where) people of modest means can live.”
Authorities have deemed the La Conchita area a “geological hazard,” and recommend that residents stay away. However, unless a home is condemned, residents cannot be legally kept out.
Elsass and Philomena, his wife of 43 years, understand the risk of remaining in La Conchita, but with their home now virtually worthless, they have few options.
“We don’t want to be homeless,” Elsass said.
Even if the Elsass family could sell their home, they would be hard-pressed to leave.
“We raised our son here,” Elsass said.
He also said they would miss the atmosphere, the climate, and especially “the camaraderie of the people.”
Elsass spoke while standing outside the town’s solitary gas station, which served as a temporary morgue following the mudslide.
He shook his head.
“We’re going to miss Tony Alvis,” Elsass said.
As cars zoomed by on Highway 101, which separates this precarious hamlet from the ocean, Elsass leaned in with a gleam in his eyes.
“My chances of being killed by (a mudslide) are less than driving onto the freeway,” he said.
Don Chiapuzio, a retired electrician, stood loading belongings from his damaged home into his pickup truck. A neighbor, in the midst of her own cleanup, came over.
“Got a couple of cold beers, Don?” the woman asked.
“No, but I got some cold soda,” said the affable Chiapuzio. He walked to a refrigerator in his garage and pulled out an armful of soft drinks.
“You want some water, too?” Chiapuzio said, loading up the other arm.
It was a comfortable exchange between friends. They’d done this before — before their neighborhood looked like a bomb detonated in the middle of it.
La Conchita didn’t need a tragedy to bring people together. By all accounts, hospitality and friendliness are part of the town’s makeup.
Elizabeth Martin-Noy, like many people in La Conchita, is a decades-long resident.
“My family has been here over 40 years,” said Martin-Noy.
She lives in a trailer her parents used to travel in. Her daughter lives in a separate trailer next to Martin-Noy’s.
When the mudslide hit, Martin-Noy was cleaning mud left over by the heavy rainstorms off of her car.
“I heard a roar and a bang,” Martin-Noy said.
She did not need to look behind her to know that the mountain was chasing her.
“I ran straight down the street,” she said.
The mountain almost caught her. It created a massive wall of mud adjacent to her property, and covered the trunk of her car.
She plans on moving.
Wearing an Asian-style sun hat, Martin-Noy described the neighborhood she’s leaving behind.
“It’s very eclectic,” she said. “But we all love the ocean, the weather. It’s like a small village.”
The hill that caused all the trouble is a heat-sink, she said, meaning it absorbs the heat during hot summer days and cools the town.
The day of the mudslide, but prior to the occurrence, firefighters were in La Conchita due to the heavy rain, but there did not seem to be any major concern, Martin-Noy said.
“Nobody was telling us (of) the danger,” Martin-Noy said.
Officials have stated that unlike the 1995 mudslide, before which there were significant cracks in the mountain to tell of an impending slide, there were no signs this time.
“Firefighters said, ‘No, don’t worry,'” Martin-Noy said. “They weren’t looking for the mountain.”
Today, all eyes are on the mountain. It looms over this town like a poised cobra, ready to strike again at any moment.
But, on a sunny day, standing with your back to the mountain and gazing across the highway at the stunning view of the Pacific, with its cool breeze making your eyes smile, you contemplate for a moment what it would be like to live here, with neighbors who know your name and offer you something cool to drink.
You begin to forget about the devastation behind you, and, in the smallest way possible, you understand why the people of La Conchita have been willing to turn their backs to the mountain for all these years.