Spiritual Lessons from a Disaster: Reflections on the Fourth Anniversary of the Montecito Debris Flow

Shortly after 3 AM on January 9, 2018, an intense downpour fell on the foothills above Montecito.  Just a month before, the Thomas Fire had incinerated the native vegetation.  These factors combined to create a geological force I’d never witnessed: a “debris flow.”

            A debris flow is a fast-moving mass of material — slurries of water, rock, soil, vegetation, and even boulders and trees – that moves downhill by sliding, flowing and/or falling. …Debris flows range from a few square yards to hundreds of acres in area, and from a few inches to 50 feet deep.[i]

            In the hours following the rain burst, the debris flow grew as high as 15 feet as it surged down the canyons at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. It consumed everything in its path. Huge sandstone boulders were swept along like ping pong balls.  It uprooted dozens of oak trees and obliterated buildings.  The fast-moving wall of mud and debris became a liquid battering ram as it headed toward the sea.

            It happened in the darkness of night, so there is no video record of what it looked like. It wasn’t until morning that the extent of the destruction began to be understood.

            As it turned out, 23 people died, 2 were never accounted for, and 163 were hospitalized.  More than 100 homes were destroyed and more than 300 damaged. Highway 101 was closed for two weeks.

            I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center at the time. La Casa was on a 26-acre parcel adjacent to the San Ysidro Creek and in the direct path.  14 acres of our historic property were wiped clean by the flow. Nine buildings disappeared, including the two-story administration building that had been designed to withstand floods and earthquakes.  Crushed oak trees were everywhere.

            The flow propelled a large boulder through the wall of the historic chapel, filling it with mud and broken furniture. The crucifix, calm and still as it overlooked the scene, was untouched; photos of it went viral.  For many people the chapel scene became an image of both tragic destruction and transcendence amid suffering.

            It quickly became clear that we would not be able to operate again. Our staff of 45 was cut by two-thirds as we began to assess our future.  More layoffs soon followed. Eventually, a decision was made to completely shut the facility down until a later date.  I retired that summer.

            In the weeks after the event, I walked the property, trying to fathom all that had happened. I looked for lessons I could draw from this experience. I came up with four.

            Embrace Environmental Humility  Modern industrial culture has assumed it can do whatever it pleases, “taming” nature if nature gets in the way. We build homes wherever we want, consume natural resources as quickly as we please, and assume we’ll find technological fixes for any problem.  This arrogance is no longer viable.  We must return to a state of mind where we revere and respect the natural forces and ecosystems we are part of and live our lives accordingly.

            Invest in Friendships and Community  Whether it’s floods, wildfires or COVID, one of the keys to survival is support found in friends, family, neighbors, and communities.  Hundreds of people sent messages of concern and pledges of support to La Casa – never before had we realized how much the property meant to so many. As David Brooks has said, our fragmented digital life shapes us into isolated individuals, but we can resist that trend; instead we can “overinvest in friendships.”  In frightening and challenging times, it’s other people we need — we need each other.  Treasure your friends and neighbors every day.

            Go Deep and Reach for Unity  As a pastor and hospice administrator, I have witnessed ways people face mortality many times.  If people have time to reflect, they often go deep within themselves and discover what really matters in life. This frequently becomes a spiritual quest.  When people do clarify their deepest beliefs and values, they often experience not only a sense of inner peace, but also a new appreciation for both nature and other people.  Sitting alone outside in the afternoon, a slight breeze passes, and it feels like a sign of grace. The person who comes to our door to help can seem like an angel.  What is true for our individual experiences is also true when we face disasters.  When we find our spiritual core, we begin to see other people, including strangers, as members of our human family.

Become Determined to Claim Your Integrity  Several years ago I read a piece by a Navy Seal who helped other vets get through PSTD experiences. He believed we have an option when we face hardship. Do we ask, “How will this affect me?” and passively let circumstances determine who we become?  Or do we say, “Facing these challenges, how can I respond in a way that will help me become the person I want to be?”  After the debris flow, all of us who loved and served La Casa became determined to see it rebuild and reopen because we knew how valuable it was to so many.  I now participate with a group that is working tomake that happen.  We hope La Casa will emerge stronger than ever after enduring so much.

            Embracing environmental humility, investing in friendships and community, going deep and reaching for unity, and a determination to claim our integrity – these are the lessons I learned from the Montecito debris flow.

            We have entered the climate change era, regularly facing wildfires, floods, and disasters of all kinds, as well as the COVID pandemic.  I believe these four lessons can help us find our way through it all.

Sadako Peace Garden, La Casa de Maria, January 2018

Dear Reader: Any thoughts about what helps us get through disasters? Please join the discussion and leave a comment. Always interesting to hear from you! — Steve

[i] https://www.conservation.ca.gov/index/Pages/Fact-sheets/Post-Fire-Debris-Flow-Facts.aspx


  1. livelier13 says:


    Oh wow, thank you for your post this week.

    Can you help me figure why I am having trouble posting a reply? Here is what I wrote, but when I submit it, it tells me it can’t be posted. I gave up previously some months ago, thought I’d try again. I’d love to …

    ….. Steve Thank you again … this time for the reflections on the debris flow and the lessons emerging. The four lessons are so universally significant – as a friend who is now facing cancer, and as we all face omicron, afraid of the health disasters looming. Humility and connection and reflecting on our responses with integrity, and earnestly going deep into our humanity and spirit. Such a gift to read you each week.

    Kristen Jacobsen Mobile 831-818-6573 Leadership & Change Inc.

    “It takes courage to be curious”

    Sent from my magic IPad



  2. maryannaransom says:

    Steve – I love the way you always dig deeper. The disaster was horrific.Your words are beautiful. Best way to begin the process of getting through disasters: hands up in supplication, kneeling at the foot of the cross waiting for answers. Those answers may never come.


    1. Mary: Thank you for the comment. You have certainly seen so may “personal disasters” in your work, and I so value your wisdom. And “Those answers may never come…” is such a needed statement. Thank you, Mary.


  3. Due to real possibilities of a disaster at any time I decided on something appropriate to give as Christmas presents.
    I carefully prepared an emergency/disaster zip canvas bag for gifts to my family & friends. Included in each bag : wind up flashlight which will also charge your phone & radio, canned heat & stove, instant ice, instant hand & heat warmers, wool blanket, cook set for canned heat stove, instant food, dried fruit, soup, tuna & chicken package, water & some other things.
    Most of my friends &family put the bag in their car. Forgo complete first aid kit.


    1. Great gift idea, Linda. We’ve got our kits ready for the earthquake that’s bound to come…which will be another opportunity for “environmental humility.”


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