Coming Together to Rebuild
One of the unexpected gifts of the twin tragedies of the Thomas Fire, the largest recorded wildfire in California’s history, and the subsequent Montecito mudslide that engulfed our small village, has been the outpouring of sympathy, compassion, and support from our neighbors in the City of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland, Goleta, the rest of Santa Barbara County, and indeed the world. Gone have been a steady stream of news references referring to Montecito as a celebrity hangout for the rich and privileged affluent retirees, mostly age 65 and older.
The mayor of Santa Barbara, Cathy Murillo, spoke for our greater community and its residents when she said, “We are all in this together.” First responders came from all over this state and other states. Our Congressman in Washington, Salud Carbajal, brought FEMA help and the Army Corps of Engineers. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Monique Limon championed legislation to make certain that fire insurance policies covered both fire and the related flood damage.
County supervisor Das Williams and a responsive county team of Tom Fayram, (public works and flood control); sheriff-coroner Bill Brown (mandatory evacuations and public safety); Rob Lewin (emergency management); Charity Dean (public health); and all the other teams of supporters and responders have been focused on our needs. Tim Gubbins at Caltrans cleared the impassible 101 in a matter of three days. (If he could repeat that feat in widening the 101 to three lanes in each direction in three months, we could rename him the “New Moses of Montecito”).
Local district leaders and heroes included Montecito Fire District’s Chip Hickman, Kevin Taylor and all the firefighters at MFPD, Nick Turner at Montecito Water District, Diane Gabriel at Montecito Sanitary District, MUS superintendent Anthony Ranii and MUS board president Gwyn Lurie, Cold Spring school superintendent and principal Amy Alzina, whose 170 students at Cold Spring Elementary School had the added burden of dealing with the loss of two friends in the flood, kindergartener Peerawat Sutthithepa, age 6, and sixth grader Sawyer Corey, age 12. Add Charlene Nagel at the Montecito Association and the team of Bob Ludwick and Sharon Byrne at the Coast Village Road Association to the unprecedented professional response teams.
What Happened in Montecito?
The 500-year Montecito fire-flood event struck rich and poor alike. A raging river of mud and muck dislodged enormous boulders off our steep hillsides denuded by fire and dry creeks. Geologists tell us that wax released by burned chaparral helped to accelerate the flow. The sudden 3:30 am deluge of pounding rain and devastating mudflow indiscriminately swallowed up homes, cars, and people of all ages and income levels as it descended from the mountains to the sea.
Nature has permanently changed the face of Montecito. Will we be able to change too? It is never too early to begin the envisioning process, to see the community not as it is now – naked, afraid, and covered in mud – but to see it as it could be, restored to its natural beauty and made better.
Underground Our Utilities for the Next Century
We are a community that previously offered some $9 billion in outstanding residential real estate value, sitting atop a century-old infrastructure. Our underground water pipes are 100 years old, corroded, and long past their useful life. Above ground, we see ugly wooden telephone poles and crossbars topped with increasingly heavier and unsightly wires that date back to 1924. One by one, these rotting wooden poles, often in pairs, are being converted to even uglier steel poles with refrigerator-sized boxes hanging on them for cell phone coverage. They have become visual environmental disasters on their own.
The mudslide and flood took out the poles and wires on a wide swath of Caltrans 192/East Valley Road. State Route 192 is a mess with its broken bridges, downed utility poles, and increasingly torn-up roadway, pounded by 200,000 heavy truckloads of mud and muck, with more to come. This roadway will need to be rebuilt. As a component of future storm readiness, the opportunity exists for Caltrans to petition FEMA for funding to rebuild 192, including giant underground culverts to house vulnerable water pipes, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical and broadband cable, free from the danger of wildfires. Also needed are storm-ready emergency disaster generators and community notification systems.
Our only land connection to the outside world – Highway 101 – is an un-widened mess. We have the Montecito gap, the only un-widened section with just two lanes in each direction from Ventura to Goleta. Miraculously, the 101 saved lives during the pre-dawn mudflow, becoming a catch basin for many hundreds of cubic yards of mud and debris that would have descended and demolished more homes in the Biltmore, Channel Drive, and Bonnymede areas.
Today, a re-opened 101 remains eternally in gridlock, choked with anxious commuters who seek to avoid the congestion by cutting through our community. When the freeway widening begins, the opportunity exists to create a second underground, giant, walk-through culvert, underground along the 101, stretching the length from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara to carry water lines, recycled water, utilities, and fiber-optic cable.
Changing Attitudes in Montecito
Traditionally, we have been a community of “No, we can’t,” rejecting change, rather than a “Yes, we can” attitude of change and aesthetic and practical improvement. We have opposed the widening of the 101. We have made it difficult for new resorts, such as the Rosewood Miramar Resort, or upgrades to the Coral Casino or Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore, to happen. Coast Village Road could be made more charming with a stronger “village” look. The San Ysidro Ranch, with its special Stonehouse Restaurant, Plow & Angel and Old Adobe, has been dealt a crippling blow. Even necessary improvements and positive upgrades at Casa Dorinda have been opposed, adding years of delay and cost for seniors.
Harnessing Community Brainpower
Now it is time to harness the collective brainpower of our special community, set aside petty differences and regional fiefdoms. Harness the power of partnerships to leverage resources and fully develop our creative capital. Supervisor Williams has already begun this process to recruit local leaders who understand the community character and its unique complexity, recognize its needs, and possess the ability to build, fund, and maintain a network of public-private partnerships.
We need to build a 21st-century infrastructure as part of our renewal – recycled wastewater for landscaping, desalinated water for reliable drought protection and regional cooperation on groundwater storage; buried utility lines to eliminate the risk of power outages and wildfires; and Silicon Valley-type solutions for broadband access and high-speed Internet for information distribution and entertainment.
As Darcel Elliott, administrative assistant to Williams, correctly perceives, “I know there are a lot of people out there who can’t even begin to think about rebuilding Montecito as a whole, because they are still so far away from being able to rebuild their own lives and homes.” We are all in pain over the loss of life and the destruction of homes occupied by our friends and neighbors in this small community. Still, it is time to begin to look forward.
Rebuilding Montecito to create 21st-century efficiencies under the ground, while protecting and preserving the charming Village of Montecito will be a challenge. There are severe limitations on both the will and the wallet that will take ingenuity and creative thinking to resolve.
Our task is to leave our children a better Montecito than the one we inherited. That’s the same challenge that faced the residents of Santa Barbara after the earthquake of June 29, 1925, that began at 6:44 am, lasted 19 seconds, killed 19 residents, and destroyed downtown Santa Barbara. The city rose from that disaster and become even stronger and more beautiful. Are we any less capable than those undaunted forebears?
The choice of how to rebuild Montecito is ours. Let us not only accept that challenge but also embrace it. Let’s celebrate our traditions and at the same time begin the process of forward thinking. Let us agree that neither fire, nor mud or flood, nor gloom of night, shall stay us from this appointed task.