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It Can Happen Anywhere… Here’s How to Survive a Mudslide

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Last month, 21 people died in Southern California after being swept away or buried by mudslides. Most of these deaths occurred in Santa Barbara County — the same area that was devastated by the Thomas Fire (the largest wildfire in California’s history) in December.

The mudslides were prompted by days of torrential rainfall that caused massive flooding in the Santa Ynez Mountains. The recently torched landscape could not withstand the weight of the sodden soil and the loosened mud, and debris started to flow downhill like an avalanche.

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Several structures were completely destroyed. Boulders the size of cars tumbled down the hillside. In some places, the mud was over 10 feet deep.

Your Home May Be at Risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 25–50 people in the United States die each year because of landslides and mudslides. That’s a fairly small number — until you’re the person that ends up in a mudslide.

The fact is mudslides can occur anywhere there are hillsides, gullies or any narrow channel that rain can easily flow through. There doesn’t have to be some prior natural disaster such as a wildfire to cause a mudslide. However, a fire can destroy vegetation and strip the soil, making mudslides more likely.

Before the mudslides in California, authorities issued voluntary evacuation orders to parts of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. However, only 10–15% of the affected residents heeded the warning and evacuated.

There are homes across the U.S. built near hillsides or narrow channels that can easily turn into a deadly mudslide — yours may be one of them. So today, I want to share four tips to help you stay safe in the event of a mudslide where you live.

Preventative Measures

Before building or purchasing your dream home, you should always personally inspect the area around it. You might also consider calling your county geological surveyor and asking them to inspect your property as well.

I also recommend visiting FEMA’s National Flood Hazard website. Enter your address to pull up the flood map for your area. Knowing the regional risks is half the battle.

If you live near a canyon, ravine or narrow channel, look into building a retaining wall to protect your property. Obviously, this may not completely stop a mudslide, but it could significantly minimize the damage to your home.

Most importantly, plan an evacuation route away from your home in the direction opposite a potential mudslide. Better yet, plan multiple routes in case one is submerged or blocked off. Avoid driving over bridges or along cliffs if you can, and NEVER try to drive through mud — your vehicle will get stuck.

Warning Signs

Areas where mudslides are likely to occur will exhibit warning signs well before the actual slide begins. For example, if you start noticing cracks in your foundation, irregularities in your flooring or the pavement around your home — even broken utility lines — this could be a sign that trouble is on the way.

Be wary of trees or fences that start to lean, water accumulating in strange places and sudden changes in the water level of nearby creeks. In addition, if you see the terrain around your home bulging or slanting more steeply at the base of a hill, this is a good sign it might soon give way.

When It Begins

The No. 1 thing you should do if there is the risk of a landslide or mudslide is evacuate as soon as authorities give the order. Even if it’s a voluntary evacuation, it’s better to be safe than sorry. This is why it’s critical to have your bug-out bags packed and ready to go and your escape routes mapped out ahead of time.

  • If you decide to stay in your home during a slide, move to an upper floor if you have one. If you can’t get off the ground floor, move to the most interior room of your house
  • If you happen to be outside when the slide strikes, move perpendicular to the debris flow to get to the end and avoid a direct encounter. Never try to outrun the slide, because chances are you won’t be able to
  • If you do get caught directly in the slide, curl up into a ball and protect your head. Create an air pocket around you so that you can breathe once the slide stops. Conserve your energy and don’t panic. Once the slide stops, rescue workers will be out in force looking for survivors.
    Don’t Go Back

Debris from a slide may not all come at once. There could be random bursts of flowing mud — like aftershocks in an earthquake or the subsequent waves of a tsunami. Even if it looks like it’s over, there might be more danger headed your way.

Always wait for emergency responders to check the area first to make sure it’s safe. Wait for them to give the all-clear before you return home.

Keep in mind that more flooding may occur after a mudslide, as drainage patterns may have shifted and rainwater built up in different places.

The Bottom Line

Preparing for unforeseen natural disasters is something everyone can (and should) do. I recommend establishing specific plans for events such as mudslides because your evacuation plan and escape routes might be a little different from other emergency situations.

One final note: If you currently store all your survival gear on the first floor or in the basement, consider moving some items to an interior room or an upper floor in case of an accident like a mudslide.

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