Boulders block a road after a mudslide in Montecito, California.
Boulders block a road after a mudslide in Montecito, California. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Mudslides have closed US 101 above Los Angeles, so tourist boats are offering an ad-hoc ferry service between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Updated: January 16, 2018

Island Packers Cruises operates a fleet of catamarans that take day-trippers and whale watchers from Ventura and Oxnard up the coast from Los Angeles to the Channel Islands, a chain of small islands offshore. But this week, devastating mudslides have closed US 101, cutting off the main route up and down the Pacific coast. So the company’s high-speed tourist boats have been pressed into service to provide emergency transportation for residents between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Since Tuesday, three of their four catamarans—each of which can carry up to 130 people—has been helping people move between areas that are otherwise inaccessible, due to the continued closure of large sections of US 101 and other major roads in the area. The Condor Express, a whale watching line operated by another cruise company called Sea Landing, is also offering the same shuttle service. “There aren’t any other boats like our boats around,” said Cheryl Connally, one of the Island Packers owners.

Courtesy of Island Packers

After heavy rains early on Tuesday, mandatory evacuation orders were issued in Santa Barbara County, as well as parts of Los Angeles County and Ventura County. Many residents are evacuating the same places ravaged by some of the worst wildfires in California’s history in October; hillsides denuded of vegetation by the fires became rivers of mud, destroying about 100 homes and trapping hundreds of residents. The death toll as of Tuesday morning stood at 20. Among the most affected areas is Montecito, a wealthy hillside community where a number of celebrities have homes.

The geography of this area, with its narrow oceanfront highway and homes perched precariously in the steep hills above, makes it extremely vulnerable to mudslide-related transportation disruptions, and this isn’t the first time that Island Packers has helped out: Their ferries stepped in to assist commuters for three very rainy days in January of 2005, after the La Conchita landslide, which killed 10 people and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes. “It’s just heartbreaking, and we’re glad we can help,” Connally said. “We’re providing shuttles for all the hospital staff, all the workers that are helping clear the mud, and the people who need to get to work or get to their loved ones.”

A semi-tractor trailer sits stuck in mud and flood waters on the highway after mudslides in Montecito, CA. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The company is sending three boats a day between Ventura Harbor and Santa Barbara Harbor. The trip takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and boats are filling to capacity. This would normally be a short 28-mile jaunt up US 101, taking perhaps 40 minutes. But with the highway closed, the shortest alternate land route between those points would involve a 260-mile diversion around the Los Padres National Forest. Drive time: More than four hours.

A ride on one of Island Packers’ emergency trips isn’t cheap: It costs $32, one way, making it a somewhat impractical long-term solution for most commuters. Island Packers charges $38 for a typical whale watching trip, and $59 for a round-trip ticket to the Channel Islands. “There are a lot of expenses that we have to encounter,” Connally said. “[But] we’re not here to make money.” They’re also offering group rates for their emergency services—a group of ten or more can pay $28 per person. (To book a trip with Island Packers in Ventura or Sea Landing in Santa Barbara, you can do so here and here.)

Map of Island Packers’ emergency shuttle route (Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

Because of the high running costs, there are no plans to offer this coastal shuttle service regularly. “It’s not feasible,” said Connally. “Most people don’t want to leave their car here every day for work … and $64 would be a costly operation for normal transportation.”

As skies have cleared over Santa Barbara and Ventura, some sections of US 101, as well as other highways, are beginning to re-open. But officials estimate that it will take until Monday to clear the debris from others. In the meantime, firefighters and rescue workers are continuing to search for the 4 people* still missing as of Tuesday morning. Some affected areas, like Montecito, have issued boil notices amid concerns of water contamination.

Until the highway clears, Connally says, she’ll keep running her ferry: “You have to be prepared.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier report from the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office stated incorrectly that 48 people were still missing.

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