A prominent Newfoundlander says he made a harrowing escape from the California mudslides that killed at least 17 people and wiped out homes and roads.
“I have been through some experiences in my life, this is right up there with them, I gotta tell you. It was so incredibly harrowing,” said Brian O’Dea, author of “High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler.”
O’Dea’s Montecito house outside Santa Barbara was in the path of a pre-dawn flash flood Tuesday that was touched off by heavy rain.
As the rainwater made its way downhill with gathering force, it pried boulders from the ground and picked up trees and other debris that flattened homes, cars and carried at least one body a mile away.
“These mudslides, they call them flash floods for an absolutely good reason. They are instant, they are a six-foot wall of mud moving 40 miles an hour, it moves whatever it wants. It simply does. And it comes right through your house,” O’Dea told VOCM Radio.
O’Dea, originally from St. John's, was jailed as a young man for drug smuggling, but is now an author, film and television producer. He was also quoted in 2016 as saying he had a branding company connected to the legal marijuana business.
Although O’Dea’s house was spared, his celebrity neighbours Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bridges had their own brushes with disaster.
O’Dea said he was at home with his family when his son pointed out a nearby fire lighting up the sky. He said he went to investigate what turned out to be an explosion at a natural gas line, and came face to face with the mudslide.
“I said, ‘We gotta get out of here.’ As I turned the car around and I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw huge boulders the size of my car rolling on the street behind me, and I went, ‘Mother of God, this is like Independence Day,’ so I took off back down to the house,” he said.
“By the time I got to my house 30 seconds later there was a river of mud all over everything. I mean, it was apocalyptic. And I’m trying to weave the car in, you know, two feet of mud to get back in the driveway and down the street. It was like somebody had brought a chainsaw and started chopping down trees.”
Winfrey owns a 58-acre parcel of land behind his house, he said, and it acted as a riverway for the mud. But when it hit his back fence, the flow split in two.
“It just went around the house like a teardrop, it was shaped like an eye,” O’Dea said.
Winfrey, fresh off a Golden Globes speech that inspired calls for her to run for president, posted Instagram photos of the shin-deep mud in her yard and video of rescue helicopters flying overhead.
Bridges said his house took a hit.
“Our home has been severely damaged, but we are safe, and so thankful for that and for the first responders who are working tirelessly to save people,” Bridges tweeted.
The deadly mudslides that ravaged the town came a month after a massive wildfire drove many residents from their homes and blackened the nearby mountains. With no vegetation left to absorb the rain, the slides came quickly amid a torrential downpour.
O’Dea said his house was turned into a staging ground for the Ventura County Search and Rescue. He said close to 40 or 50 rescue crew members stayed for the better part of the day as “they were out looking for bodies.”
Five people were missing as of early Friday, down from as many as 43 a day earlier, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County. Sheriff Bill Brown had given the larger number Thursday but cautioned that many or most of those people may simply have been unreachable to the family and friends who reported they couldn’t find them.
Brown released the names of 17 people killed in the mudslide Thursday, including the youngest victim 3-year-old Kailly Benitez.
As California is at the beginning of its rainy season, O’Dea says he’s worried about how people will make it through.
“The next rain, I can’t imagine why we’re going to experience anything different. I’m really flabbergasted to imagine how they’re going to survive this rainy season,” he said.
— The Canadian Press and VOCM contributed to this story.