California Woman Shares Story Of Mudslide Survival NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Rita Bourbon, who survived the California mudslides in her home, but sadly found her neighbor's body in her backyard.

California Woman Shares Story Of Mudslide Survival

California Woman Shares Story Of Mudslide Survival

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NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Rita Bourbon, who survived the California mudslides in her home, but sadly found her neighbor's body in her backyard.


The most recent disaster here in California of course is the heavy rain that has led to mudslides. Rescuers in Santa Barbara County are still trying to find people who are trapped in the mud and debris. Rita Bourbon was at her house in Montecito when the rain started on Monday night. She says at first it seemed fine. And then things changed.

RITA BOURBON: We heard the earth just groaning like a tsunami was coming our way. That's really how I would liken it. It was a tsunami.

MCEVERS: Bourbon, her daughter and the students who rented rooms from her sat together all night, listening.

BOURBON: And my daughter and I had our moment of we are probably not going to live through this. That's how it sounded. There could be boulders the size of our house coming down the road. And we cried. And we loved each other. And I - I'll do a disclaimer now. I burst into tears. And I may during some of this. But my house saved us.

MCEVERS: It was not the same for Rita's neighbors.

BOURBON: The mud two houses just across the street from me had a creek behind it. It sheared their houses almost in half. One couple was fine. The other couple was washed away. The wife landed up against my house. Her husband was missing.

MCEVERS: Rita says she's very close to this family. And the couple's daughter, Andrea (ph), called Rita and asked her to go look for her father.

BOURBON: And I said I can't, Andrea. I - it's pitch dark outside, and I don't know what I'm running into. I knew there's a mudslide. I could - and the power lines are down. I could be stepping on them. And she understood of course. And at first light, 6:30, finally the earth stopped groaning.

MCEVERS: Rita looked outside her window, and there was a lot of debris from the neighbor's house. That's when she worried she might find Andrea's dad out there.

BOURBON: So finally I went outside with my daughter and one of the students. And the student spotted his arm and screeched. She's very young. And we sent her into her room. And then my daughter, Alexandra (ph), and I went to him. And he was - full, peaceful, beautiful face. I think he must have died instantly. And we honored him. And we knelt down and gave blessings, sent loves to the family and, you know, whatever we could think to do to remember this beautiful man. And my daughter rubbed his head and held his hand. And we got a sleeping bag and covered him.

And then all the rescue workers were there and a sheriff came in. They have a protocol. We walked away and let them do the rest of that themselves. And then we went to every neighbor because who knew what the other neighbors - what the condition was? And everybody was either gone or - not gone like they had left wisely, which I should have. I was just - I regret that so much.

MCEVERS: There were mandatory evacuation orders...

BOURBON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes.

MCEVERS: ...In your area. And it sounds like your - the fact that you have a stone house was a thing that - is that why you didn't leave, because...

BOURBON: Partly. I trust that house in an earthquake or any type of thing. And I thought if we take on water, I could deal with that. I never really thought the mountain was going to come down, which it did. We had 17-foot boulders coming down that mountain, you know? So it was regretful. And we don't have flood insurance. Nobody does. We don't - we're not in a flood zone. So there's - you know, there's those practical things that of course pop into my brain.

MCEVERS: So what's your plan? I mean, are you going to - you know, once...

BOURBON: It's hard to make a plan because this is January. This is the beginning of the rainy season. If I begin - first of all, I'd have to pretend that I have a hundred thousand dollars to clean up my property. But my plan is I will make it so we can drive our cars in and out. And the rest of the property - it's an acre property. A half of the acre will stay under mud until the rains are over because I don't know what's next. That whole mountain did not come down. There's plenty of mountain to come down again. So - and I will leave when we get evacuated. That's a given. You remind me if I forget to. Call me, please, and say, get out (laughter), yeah.


MCEVERS: Rita Bourbon is staying with one of her daughters now. She says the neighbor who lost her husband is in the hospital recovering. So far, 18 people are known to have died from the mudslides in Southern California, and more are still missing.


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