By Norma Hernandez
A little boy, about eight years old, and his family were surrounded by mud at a local shopping center. One of the soldiers stretched out his arms to the boy but the boy hesitated.
Private First Class Yessenia Mendoza, motor transport operator for the California Army National Guard, reached out to him and he jumped straight into her arms.
“We happened to see them and that’s when we [realized] this is for real,” said Mendoza.
Mendoza, a CSU Bakersfield junior psychology major, was one of the eight additional soldiers in the National Guard who volunteered with the evacuation after devastating mudslides swamped areas in Montecito, California on Jan. 9, 2018.
“Private First Class Mendoza’s unit, the 114th Composite Truck Company, is credited with rescuing or evacuating more than 1,800 people,” U.S. Air National Guard Senior Airman Crystal Houseman wrote in an email.
Mendoza works as a truck driver, but mostly does administration work for drivers.
She stays a great deal behind the scenes.
Before the Montecito incident, she hadn’t had much experience being in a mudslide or being involved so personally in a mission.
According to the incident report given by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection agency, the mudslides killed 20 residents.
“You see people without their shoes, all wet, [and] they’re covered in mud all the way up to their chest,” said Sgt. Diana Martinez, who worked with Mendoza in Montecito.
On the first day, Mendoza and a couple of soldiers were on their trucks scouting for the safest roads to drive on before they could begin the evacuation.
During their drive, they encountered the family stuck at a shopping center covered in mud.
She saw the little boy with his family and it reminded her of her son.
She said the thought of this happening in Bakersfield and to her own son, made her uneasy.
The soldiers stopped their drive immediately to rescue the family.
They visited a multitude of neighborhoods and made several trips to evacuate the area.
Mendoza said they had to overload the legal amount of people they could carry on their trucks.
“[Legally], you’re only supposed to fit 15 [people], but we were fitting up to 30 people because so many people wanted to get out,” said Mendoza.
Residents took their dogs, chickens, and horses, as well as food for their pets, small luggage, and some small items to remind them of home.
“If I was in that situation, I would want to take as much as I could,” said Mendoza.
The incident report states that 128 homes were destroyed and 307 homes were damaged.
“It’s scary how rain can cause so much damage to homes,” said Martinez.
“It wasn’t just the rain. There were fires before that caused the mudslides. It was sad.”
Mendoza spent four days in Montecito, evacuating the residents and leaving them at a Vons Supermarket, which was being used as a safe haven.
“It was crazy how people were relieved when they [saw] us,” said Mendoza.
After the residents were taken to Vons, the local officers took over and Mendoza and the other soldiers returned home.
Once Mendoza’s unit left, the mud became less dense and with the help of the National Guard’s engineers, people were able to drive on the roads again. Houseman stated that Cal Guard engineers spent their time clearing the roads.
As a mother, Mendoza said it was difficult to see children at the scene of a natural disaster, but it made her appreciate the time she has with her son.
Mendoza plans to continue to work for the National Guard and said she hopes to be promoted soon after she meets her two-year mark.
She said she still plans to continue with school at CSUB in the hope to become a forensic psychiatrist where her love of psychology and law come together.