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SLO man involved in rescue efforts ‘awestruck’ by Montecito devastation

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team volunteer Tom Zehnder (fourth from right) was part of a mutual-aid team to assist in the recovery efforts after last week’s Montecito mudslides.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team volunteer Tom Zehnder (fourth from right) was part of a mutual-aid team to assist in the recovery efforts after last week’s Montecito mudslides.

Most days, Tom Zehnder works as an engineer at Wallace Group in San Luis Obispo. When disaster strikes, Zehnder dons a new identity: Member of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team.

Zehnder once again took on that second identity when rain-fueled mudslides, intensified by damage from the Thomas Fire, devastated Montecito and other parts of southern Santa Barbara County. He was part of a team of nine volunteers and two deputies sent to the area Tuesday after Santa Barbara County issued a call for mutual aid.

Zehner spent some of Tuesday and most of Wednesday searching the area bounded by Olive Mill Road to the north, San Ysidro Road to the south, the ocean to the west and Highway 101 to the east.

“The gravity of the devastation, from crushed cars to damaged houses … it left you awestruck and very sad,” Zehnder said.

While Zehnder’s team did not find anyone in the rubble, rescue workers have so far uncovered 18 bodies as a result of the mudslides and flooding, with seven more people still missing. The youngest to die was 3, the oldest 89.

“We found two vehicles on the beach, a Honda and a Hummer, that were just balls of metal,” he said, describing the power of the slides.

Yet, despite the horrifying scene all around him, Zehnder said there was cause for hope, as well.

“The measure of appreciation that we felt from the community was amazing,” he said.

He spoke of a church that offered food and water to volunteers, despite having very little of either to begin with.

“You really saw the best part of humanity,” he said. “It gives you faith in humanity.”

Zehnder said he was unsure whether his team would return to the Montecito area, but he said the incident was just another reminder of the importance of emergency preparedness.

“They always say be prepared to have enough food and water to be on your own for several days,” Zehnder said. “There is no way to get to the store. There is no power. There is no water.”

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