SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
In Southern California, many homeowners are still digging out of the mud more than two months after a deadly 30-square-mile debris flow slammed into their homes. But as Stephanie O'Neill reports from Montecito, each weekend, hundreds of volunteers armed with shovels are coming to help.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: When Peri Thompson watched the televised helicopter rescue of a Montecito family, she was shocked to see the drama unfolding at her own house.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Tonight, for the first time, we are hearing the dramatic story of one family trapped by mud and plucked from the roof of their home.
O'NEILL: Thompson was renting to the young family that narrowly escaped death.
PERI THOMPSON: You probably saw them taken from the roof in the basket. And they took their two dogs - their two large dogs.
O'NEILL: After learning her tenants survived, a relieved Thompson was left with assessing the damage to her home, one of more than 300 houses filled with mud, rocks and debris several feet high. But she, like many here, is underinsured for this type of disaster.
THOMPSON: You just come here, and it seems absolutely futile to do anything. You just - it's mind-boggling.
O'NEILL: And expensive, says Abe Powell. He's founder of the newly formed Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade - an all-volunteer group that's helped more than five dozen stuck homeowners, like Thompson, dig out of the mud for free.
ABE POWELL: Most of the homes we're digging out are the smaller homes where the working families live. And so usually, with a crew of 40 to 50, we can get that mostly completed in a day.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)
O'NEILL: So far, more than 2,000 volunteers have shown up to shovel. While teams work to clear the mud from inside each house, Powell oversees another crew that operates a mini-excavator and other heavy equipment to clean the yards. Step one, he says, is to dig a path to the front door, much in the same way you'd clear a walkway of snow.
POWELL: The second thing is we dig the cars out. And then the next thing is to dig out inside and dig a perimeter around the house so the walls can start to dry out. And that's really important because a house will literally rot from within.
O'NEILL: Finally, the crews pile the dirt in each yard for the homeowners to dispose of. And while dumping it is costly, Powell estimates the group has saved residents here more than a million dollars in cleanup costs. John Trimble is a Santa Barbara contractor and volunteer who says it's not just the hard-hit homeowners who benefit from this work.
JOHN TRIMBLE: Most of the volunteers, it's as much for them as it is for the people they're helping. I mean, it really is a cleansing experience for the community.
O'NEILL: For many volunteers, digging is a way to connect with others and begin processing the disaster - one that took 23 lives, including a teenage boy and a toddler girl who remain missing. Josiah Hamilton of Montecito is a realtor and Bucket Brigade volunteer who says the whole community feels that loss.
JOSIAH HAMILTON: You know, there's families out there that are never going to recover from this. That's something that we just always want to keep in our hearts.
O'NEILL: It'll take more time before many homeowners in Montecito learn whether their houses can be saved. Still, Peri Thompson says she considers herself among the lucky ones. Not only did her tenants escape tragedy, but now she and her neighbors are getting the help they need from total strangers.
THOMPSON: I don't know these people at all, and, I mean, they've come out here and dug. It's really - and I don't know why I'm crying 'cause it's a really wonderful thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)
O'NEILL: The donation-funded Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade is scheduled for its next dig this weekend. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Montecito, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF METHENY-MEHLDAU QUARTET'S "TOWARDS THE LIGHT")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.