President's Day seemed like many other recent days for Stephanie Spencer and her Watsonville family this past February. It was raining again, as it had been for most of the early weeks of 2017.
But that particular day was also obviously different in one respect. "What was unusual was that my husband and all three of our children were home," she says. "It was a holiday, so my husband Bill had the day off, and our kids' school was closed."
Shortly after noon, as the family began to prepare lunch, the day suddenly became very different — and life-threateningly dangerous.
"I was on the front porch, talking to my Mom on the telephone when suddenly the porch began to shake like we were having an earthquake," Spencer recalls. "By the time I could get inside, there was mud everywhere."
Saturated by historically large amounts of winter rainfall, the hillside behind Stephanie and Bill's home on Lewis Road had given way; within seconds, the mudslide partially buried the family's modest yellow house, separating it from its foundation.
"I remember screaming for our children," Spencer says of the couple's 9- and 8-year-old sons (Travis and Waylon) and 3-year-old daughter (Savannah). Instinctively, Stephanie Spencer says her concern was especially acute for her daughter — and not just because she was the youngest and seemingly most vulnerable.
When the mudslide struck, it had been less than three months since Savannah had been diagnosed with severe cancer. So when help came from the American Red Cross and others after the mudslide, it was especially meaningful for the Spencer family.
"I noticed the day after Thanksgiving that Savannah had not wanted to eat food or drink liquids, so I took her to the emergency room." The diagnosis was chilling: the little girl had a cancerous tumor on her right kidney, and it had ruptured, filling her stomach with blood. "They immediately transported Savannah to Stanford for an operation," Spencer says.
The surgery to remove the kidney was successful, but Savannah was soon subjected to painful radiation and chemotherapy treatments. "She was very weak, and chemo had taken a lot out of her. And then the storms hit us in February," Spencer says, her voice trailing off.
Nine-year-old Travis was in a bedroom, playing a video game when the mudslide hit. "He saw the hillside collapsing on us, but didn't have time to even get to his father in the kitchen," Spencer recalls.
The water-logged hillside hit the family home so hard it forced Travis through the wall separating the bedroom and the living room. Spencer believes little Savannah, in the kitchen with her father and 8-year-old Waylon, survived only because she was able to seek cover under a chair.
With some help from a neighbor who came to the family's aid in the minutes after the slide occurred, all five members of the Spencer family crawled or were pulled to safety. The parents escaped unhurt, Travis was treated in a local hospital for deep scratch down his back, Waylon broke his right arm in two places, and Savannah was treated for cuts to her head.
In April, a long two months after the hillside destroyed the family home, Spencer and her husband were pondering their options for rebuilding on the property. "We at least want to get something temporary back on the site so that we can feel a bit more like we are home," Stephanie said at the time.
By late June, that goal had been realized, as the family happily occupied temporary housing in an RV back on their Lewis Road property.
Most importantly, Savannah is responding well to treatments. "Her doctors think she will fully recover," Spencer says.
Optimistic by nature, Spencer acknowledges that the family's challenges since last November have tested her resolve. "My key through all of this is to just stay positive," she says.
But Spencer is also generous with praise for the people who have helped her and her family during their darkest hours. And that includes the people who stepped forward from the American Red Cross.
"We were still in the hospital getting treated for our injuries when the Red Cross first called," she says. "They offered to put us up in a shelter, but we couldn't do that because Savannah's chemotherapy made it so that she had to be isolated from other people."
But within days, the Red Cross was back in touch with the Spencer, providing the family with short-term financial assistance that enabled them to stay in a motel until they could find something more permanent. "The financial assistance also enabled us to just buy a few groceries and the most essential of clothes," Spencer says. "We literally walked away from our home in February with nothing. Even the clothes on our back were filled with mud."
"The Red Cross was amazing," Stephanie Spencer says. "They really helped us get back on our feet the first days after we lost our home. And they continued to call to make sure we were getting connected to other people who could also help us."
About the photo: The home occupied by Stephanie Spencer and her family was partially buried by a mudslide on President's Day during the historically wet winter of 2017. By June, the family had moved back onto their Watsonville property, taking up residence in a temporary mobile home. More importantly, young Savannah was responding very well to cancer treatments.