UCSB Teams up with UCLA Conservator to Save Memories from the Montecito Mudslides

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Photo by Lauren Rennecker

Lauren Marnel Shores
Campus Beat Reporter

In a community-led effort to restore photographs and documents damaged by the Monetico mudslides, a small team called “Saving Memories from the Mud Montecito Rescue Project” is working to preserve the memories and possessions of affected families.

Melissa Barthelemy, a UCSB graduate student in Public History, began the project with Rebecca Metzger, the UCSB Associate University Librarian for Outreach and Academic Collaboration. Their team includes two members of the UCSB community, Kristen LaBonte, a reference librarian at UCSB, and Julia Diane Larson, a reference archivist at the UCSB Art Museum. In addition, they brought on Christina Romanowski Bean, the Kress Assistant Conservator at UCLA, to fulfill the speciality skill of conservation work on damaged items.

“For some people, a photo of a loved one who died in the mudslide really is the most important thing to them. We’ve all just seen that deal of people prioritizing that,” Barthelemy said.

On Feb. 10, Barthelemy, Metzger, and Romanowski Bean held an event called “Saving Memories from Mud” at the Montecito Public Library, in which they restored photographs and paper documents for families who came. Barthelemy described it as “an intense day, but very meaningful,” in which most of the families who attended had lost their homes, many of their belongings, and even loved ones.

“The main, huge, obstacle they currently have is mold. There’s extreme mold growth on everything they’re pulling out of the mudslides,” Romanowski Bean explained. The mud was so thick that it had never fully dried out and, as a result, had fostered the growth of bacteria in the standing water.

“People are pulling things out of the mud, it’s covered in mold, they take it to wherever they’re staying, and it’s a significant health risk to the people who are handling it,” Romanowski Bean continued. “And, the mold is also degrading the object as they go. We just really want to kill the mold so that there is a chance to save the object and also make it safe for the people to handle them, without getting sick themselves.”

Their efforts continued on Feb. 18 when Barthelemy, Larson, and LaBonte teamed up with La Casa de Maria to assess the retreat center’s mud damage. To treat the moldy items, they secured the damaged objects in double ziplock bags, then placed them into freezers to slow down or stop the molding process.

Metzger stated they are “still discovering” the scope of the project’s undertaking. “It’s growing everyday. It started out with ‘what could we do most immediately?’ And that was putting on the event that took place two weeks ago … that gave [Romanowski Bean] a real sense of how bad things are in the community.”

Currently, the team is in the process of applying for grants with the goal of raising $10,000 – $20,000 to continue their free service to the community. Though they have not outlined a full budget yet, they hope to secure two shipping container-sized freezers to kill the mold off of the objects.

“In the ideal world, for the second phase Christina would be able to have a “lab” type of environment where she could make recommendations — mailing away anything of value (especially if insurance covers it) to special conservation labs in LA, or having her do the work on the objects at a greatly reduced cost too,” Barthelemy said.

Barthelemy stressed the importance of their work for families, explaining how most of the families in Montecito were under-insured. Alternatively, they may simply have insurance companies who were not prepared for the amount of mud damage that took place, where it can cost families $50,000 just to have the mud removed. She stated insurance companies have been slow to come out and assess the damage, meanwhile the mold is continuing to deteriorate precious mementos with every passing moment.

“There isn’t really something like a conservator going out and doing something like this or librarians dropping in together for communities. It’s unprecedented. It doesn’t happen,” stated Romanowski Bean, in reference to the project’s uniqueness. “There isn’t really a procedure in place for how to help the individual family. What we want to do, from a community base, is to help a community.”

The team stated that people who want to provide assistance to the Montecito community can volunteer with the Montecito Bucket Brigade on Saturdays and Sundays to help shovel mud out of homes impacted by the mudslides.