When the mudslides swept through the quiet coastal town of Santa Barbara, California, people weren’t ready for it. In an instant, entire lives were swept away in an unrelenting river of mud, trees, boulders, and debris. Sadly, 21 people were killed in the onslaught and two children are still missing.
As the city has worked to recover, volunteers have begun to sift through the mud, looking for anything valuable or sentimental that they might be able to return to their rightful owners.
Erin Doherty is one of these “Mud Angels.” Wading through several feet of mud, she noticed something shining in the debris. When she picked it up to see what it was, she discovered a muddy silk purse with a pair of sparkling blue earrings inside.
She could tell the earrings were special, so she started a Montecito Disaster Lost & Found Facebook page and posted a picture of the earrings on it, hoping somehow the photo would make it to their rightful owner.
The post was shared 10,000 times and eventually reached Kelly Mitchell Weimer who instantly recognized the earrings as her mother’s.
Sadly, both of Kelly’s parents, along with their dog, perished in the mudslide. Everything they owned had been swept away and lost in the mud as well.
“She didn’t have anything left from her parents’ home,” Erin said.
When Kelly saw the earrings she was overcome with emotion knowing that she could have a small piece of her mother back.
“I remember [my mother] wearing those earrings not too long ago, and I commented on how pretty they were and they matched her eyes,” Kelly said.
She is grateful for the people who are doing the dirty work of digging through the mud, and she is glad she found out about the Facebook page so she could get her mother’s earrings back.
“My parents are deeply missed,” she said. “If it wasn’t for me bumping into a lady on the beach who told me about this Facebook page, I would not have found [the earrings].”
Erin’s Facebook page has quickly grown as others have posted their findings, hoping to reunite special items with their rightful owners. Pictures of sentimental photos, toys, clothes, and artwork now fill the page, waiting for the right people to see them. Over 100 items have already been returned.
Searching through the mud is smelly, dirty, difficult work, but Erin said it’s worth it to help people regain some of what they lost in the devastating mudslides.
“The people we are getting the items back to are just so unbelievably grateful to have one thing,” she said. “We are looking for the possible in an impossible situation.”
They are trying to work quickly, knowing that the mud will soon harden and it will be nearly impossible to find missing items.
“You can’t be afraid of getting dirty,” she said. “The mud smells, it has got stuff packed into it. The mud is starting to harden and the odds of finding photographs are going to be less and less. The photographs we are finding are the most valuable things that we are returning to people. Everything is at the mercy of this mud.”
Many of the mudslide victims have lost everything, and some have lost their entire families. Getting back pictures or small items won’t change that, but having just a small piece of the life they once knew is enough to give them hope.
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