Securing Montecito’s Future

By Bob Hazard   |   June 7, 2018

Without a mayor and a town council that have both authority to set priorities and resources to fund selected programs, disaster recovery options are limited. Local efforts are confined to supporting the county government team and offering a host of volunteer services.

The historic role, for example, of the Montecito Association (MA) has been “the preservation, protection, and enhancement of the semi-rural, residential character of Montecito in the spirit of the Montecito Community Plan.” Each month, 16 MA directors, all concerned community residents, voluntarily gather as the “voice of the community.” Their strength is their collective commitment to protecting our village; their weakness is that as an advocacy group, they have virtually no money and no political authority.

This passive role was adequate when Montecito enjoyed the “old normal.” But today, suddenly and without warning, we are living in the “new normal,” which includes extended drought, the largest wildfire in California’s history, and a terrifying debris flow that delivered huge losses in residential property, business closures, and the deaths of 23 of our friends and neighbors. 

Even without its own elected leadership, however, Montecito has produced a bevy of supremely effective groups of volunteers. Here are two examples of local leadership at its best:

The Abe Powell Bucket Brigade

There is no better example of enlightened local leadership than the volunteer efforts of Abe Powell and his Bucket Brigade. Immediately after the January 9 event, hundreds of Montecito homeowners were faced with a pile of mud, muck, and debris, many unable to access their front doors and garages. All faced the daunting task of removing that mud and debris at their own personal expense. Frustrated residents were forced to plead with a cash-strapped County, along with contentious negotiations with their insurance adjusters over mud removal reimbursements.

With no formal funding and no legal authority, Powell and his volunteers saw a need and filled it. When the County backed away from removing unwanted mud and debris from private property, Abe’s army of volunteers removed it from homes at no cost.

Now, Abe and his hardy band of volunteers are answering a new community challenge. The existing San Ysidro walking pathway between the Montecito Union School and North Jameson Lane was built at a cost of $400,000. The Bucket Brigade intends to extend that pedestrian pathway along North Jameson Lane from San Ysidro Road to Olive Mill Road at a fraction of the cost of the original federally funded pathway project by using voluntary labor and private funding.

A Public-Private Partnership

A second group of Montecito volunteers, calling themselves the Partnership for Resilient Communities – headed up by Brett Matthews, Joe Cole, Gwyn Lurie, Les Firestein, Pat McElroy, Mary Rose, and Alixe Mattingly – has stepped into the leadership vacuum by creating a public-private partnership with the County to secure federal and State funding for flood control mitigation, installation of high-quality monitoring systems on the hillsides, and engaging the broader community in identifying the best safety practices from experts around the world. 

Today, the Partnership is paying the costs of tapping into scientific, engineering, and geological talent, whether in Switzerland or Japan, or anywhere else around the world. The debris basins on all six of our Montecito creeks are inadequate and unreliable; there may be feasible mitigation solutions that may also be affordable.

At best, federal funding from FEMA and other disaster mitigation programs will only pay 75 percent of proposed costs. The Partnership will be turning to the community, the County, and the State to identify and raise the remaining 25 percent to qualify for FEMA or other federal grants.

“The world has changed for Montecito, but we keep doing the same things,” notes former City of Santa Barbara Fire chief Pat McElroy. “How,” he wonders, “can we best recover as a community and become more resilient? The solutions are complicated and require the cooperation of multiple levels of government.”

Gwyn Lurie and her husband, Les Firestein, add, “People in this community have one thing in common. We are not used to being told ‘No.’ Together, we can solve this. We are only limited by the boundaries of our imaginations.”

What Happened

Four scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) – Ed Keller, professor of earth sciences; Tom Dunne, professor of geomorphology; Doug Jerolmack, professor of geophysics, on loan to UCSB from the University of Pennsylvania; and Kristen Morell, assistant professor of earth sciences – are mapping the boulders left in the canyons and studying the remaining mudlines on trees to determine the depth, volume, and velocity of the debris flow, based on current on-the-ground research techniques, as opposed to the FEMA study, based solely on aerial surveys and 100-year flood predictions.

The UCSB team estimates the debris flow during the Hot Springs Creek’s merger with the Montecito Creek rose to 14 to 15 feet high, traveling at 25 mph, when it overtopped and destroyed the creek bridge at East Valley Road and Parra Grande Lane, killing 11 of the 23 victims who perished on January 9.

What Can You Do?

Fortunately, Montecito has received support from a centralized county planning team of professionals who have developed a Strategic Plan Summary and released it on May 23. The goal is to bring together the collective resources of county government, volunteer non-profit organizations, private philanthropy, and community associations. Every person in Montecito has a stake in this recovery planning effort. 

As concerned citizens, it is our responsibility to become informed and find a way to participate. So, let’s get to it.


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