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Hard-hit California neighborhoods evacuate as "atmospheric river" moves in

SoCal evacuations underway

LOS ANGELES -- When sheriff's deputies told Kristine Sperling and her family they should evacuate their Southern California home because of an approaching storm in January, they didn't listen. Sperling thought she, her husband and their 11-year-old daughter would be perfectly safe. But the storm unleashed mudslides that inundated hundreds of homes in their community of Montecito and killed 21 people, including a dear family friend.

Now the Sperlings don't question evacuation orders. They just go.

"It's a matter of life and death," Sperling said from Santa Barbara, where her family was staying with good friends after evacuating Tuesday ahead of a powerful Pacific storm that's likely to be the worst this winter for parts of the state.

The storm, a so-called "atmospheric river," began moving into central and southern parts of California on Tuesday, dropping rain as communities besieged by wildfires and mudslides braced for the worst.

The Sperlings' home wasn't damaged by January's mudslides but the family needed to be rescued after losing electricity, gas and water, and all the roads out of town were destroyed.

"We're just not willing to take that kind of chance anymore," the 48-year-old Sperling said. "What happened in January was just all of our worst nightmares."

The rain began on the central coast in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and spread south across adjacent Ventura and Los Angeles Counties by early Wednesday.

There were no initial reports of flooding or debris flows, but Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Suzanne Grimmesey said forecasters warned that rainfall was expected to intensify later in the morning.

In the meantime, debris basins that had filled during the January storm were functioning after being completely emptied, she said. The county has said 50,000 truckloads of debris were removed.

"Everybody's clenched a bit waiting," said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Hoxsie said there's also potential for isolated thunderstorms, which can dump large amounts of water over short periods of time.

"That gets everybody more concerned," she said.

The Sperlings are among tens of thousands of people in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties who've been ordered to flee their homes as the storm approached. According to CBS Los Angeles, L.A. Sheriff's deputies knocked on more than 300 homes in Kagel Canyon Tuesday. They want everyone to take their warning seriously.

"Helicopters have a difficult time flying in inclement weather," said LASD Capt. Christopher Blasnek. "Rocks and boulders may come down if there's mud and debris flow. So, we can't get to you if you need help."

Despite the orders, some residents like Ron Haley opted to stay, at least for now. He said he even signed a waiver from the deputies.

"I'm keeping the car loaded with stuff to go with if I have to," Haley said. "If the rumble gets too bad, I'll just head out the door and be gone in five minutes."

Many residents in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have faced repeated evacuations or advisories since December, when a wind-driven fire grew into the largest in recorded state history and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.

Mudslide victims say insurance company are disputing claims

Montecito resident Garrick Hyder evacuated for the December wildfire but not ahead of the January mudslides, which destroyed items in his garage that included a motorcycle and thousands of dollars' worth of snowboarding and scuba-diving equipment.

Hyder watched as rescuers retrieved several bodies over several days from in front of his house. Mudslides had swept the dead from their homes miles away to the coast.

Hyder evacuated four days after the mudslides and then again when another storm threatened the area a week ago.

"I'm on No. 4 now," Hyder said Tuesday as he packed his car. "It's pretty crazy. It's kind of the price of living in paradise."

Hyder was planning to stay in Los Angeles overnight and then head up north to Lake Tahoe to make the most of his latest evacuation.

"I'm getting used to this," he said. "It's kind of desensitizing."

Grimmesey said law enforcement officers knocked on doors in the extreme-risk areas of Montecito on Tuesday.

"For those that were home, we had a very good cooperation rate with people leaving," she said.

However, both Hyder and the Sterlings know several neighbors who are opting to stay, many who are older and less mobile, some who are tired of the repeated evacuations and others who just think their homes will be safe.

Camille Joos-Visconti, her husband and their three children were staying in their home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles. For now.

"We have three dogs, two newborn kittens, a 20-pound iguana, a 5-foot snake, three young kids, and I'm pregnant," said the 32-year-old Joos-Visconti. "It's just so much to deal with."

The family's area has also been burned bare from recent wildfires and their home is prone to flooding. Their area is on notice to evacuate Wednesday.

Joos-Visconti said the family has evacuated three times since September and can be out of the house with everything they need in five minutes if necessary.