Anatomy of a Practical Problem Solver

By Bob Hazard   |   August 9, 2018
Bucket Brigade's core team taking a moment with Montecito resident, Oprah

Montecito is blessed with an extraordinary collection of doers, believers, thinkers, and dreamers. While it takes contributions from all four types to craft a community recovery program, it is the local “doers” who earn my admiration because they seize the day to take ownership of problems rather than wait for others to act. Here is but one powerful local example:

Abe Powell’s Volunteer Bucket Brigade

John Abraham Powell: “On January twenty-fifth, the mud was everywhere, blocking roads, clogging storm drains, filling houses, and covering property. My wife, Jessica, and I were sitting at the kitchen table, finally back home after weeks of evacuation, talking about what we had seen. 

“I talked to a friend who lived in the Montecito Oaks neighborhood. His insurance adjuster came by, looked at the two-feet of debris flow covering the yard, and the mud inside the home, and said: ‘I can’t tell if your home is damaged. If you dig out this mud so I can see the walls and floors, inside and out, then we can see if there was any damage or not.

“This was infuriating. Of course, the home was damaged. The mud had burst through the door. Every capable adjuster knows that one-hundred cubic yards of wet mud on your floor will ruin the wood, the carpets, the furniture, the structural support for the floor, the drywall, all of it.

“I turned to my wife and suggested, ‘We should dig them out.’ Jessica got that look she gets when I come up with one of my ideas: supportive, understanding, and mildly concerned for where this idea might lead and what might be required of us to undertake it. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we should dig them out.’

“We called our friends, posted an invitation on Facebook, bought some tools and safety gear, and set our sights on Sunday, January 28. Montecito Oaks was still in an ‘exclusion zone’ and we needed to get permission from the sheriff to be there. I went out to the Earl Warren Showgrounds, where the Emergency Operations Center was set up, and requested permission to bring a team into the neighborhood. Law enforcement liked the idea as long as we had a way to clearly identify our people, and we agreed on a band of red tape around their sleeve so that the officers could see the difference between our people and potential looters. We were in.

“Sunday morning, we set up a sign-in table at the road-block on Olive Mill Road and waited to see who would show up. By 8:40 am, we had five volunteers lined up at the table. Two of them, Jed Hirsch and Matt Metcalfe, had arrived with a bobcat (small bulldozer) and a machine operator to help us dig out driveways, to pull out cars and to help pile up the dirt. We signed folks in, put on the safety gear, and started work. 

“By 9:30 am, we had fifty people on site: more than we could use inside the home. Crews were digging ferociously, mud was flying, and a mountain was forming in the front yard. The machines had cleared the driveway and were already working in the back yard. Neighbors started coming out to see what was going on. We ordered sandwiches for everyone from Panino, and they arrived at 11:30 for a lunch break.

“By then, our friend Linda Cole added coffee and doughnuts, set up some lunch tables and hand-washing stations and had a plan for getting everyone cleaned up enough to eat. During lunch, some of the neighbors asked for help at their homes, and we found some volunteers to help dig them paths to their front doors. Matt Metcalfe and Gabe Sanchez were going great guns in the bobcats and went down the street to help get some driveways cleared. They had three more driveways cleared by 1 pm. Four cars were pulled from blocked garages. A hundred yards of mud had been hand-dug from the inside of the house. Volunteers were filthy but smiling and talking to each other.

Josiah Hamilton, a local realtor, turned out to be a formidable digger. I struck up a conversation while we dug. It turns out, he used to live in The Oaks, had sold a number of the houses in that neighborhood, and was determined to help his former neighbors recover. These weren’t just clients to him, they were his friends. He seemed to know everybody and they all seemed to know and respect him a great deal. Meanwhile, more neighbors had gathered at the check-in table. They wanted to know if we could come back and help them too. I thought about it for a second and said, ‘Sure.’ Little did I know that this would be just the beginning.

“By the end of the day, we had moved hundreds of yards of mud, dug out the inside of a house, cleared four driveways, pulled out five cars and everyone was exhausted but happy. We had accomplished something. People had been talking, made new friends, found new respect for old friends and felt like they had finally found a way to do something about the terrible tragedy of January 9.

“We now had a list of ten neighbors who wanted help and a bunch of tools and wheelbarrows, so we decided to come back the next day and chip away at the problem a little more. The next morning, fourteen people showed up; it was a Monday, and we hadn’t advertised it at all. We went to work. Jed Hirsch brought his machine and Josiah Hamilton was there again helping to coordinate volunteers without even being asked. He was a natural leader; he set a good example and then encouraged people to join in.

“On Tuesday, twenty-five people showed up and Josiah was back again. Wednesday, we had forty people and the cost of safety supplies and food was starting to be an issue. It was all going on my credit card. I had missed a ton of work due to the weeks of evacuations. Jessica and I talked about it. We needed to form an organization to help raise money to do this work. I wanted to call it the ‘Bucket Brigade’ because that was where the idea came from: the old community-response model for fighting fires and floods. Volunteers form a line, pass the buckets or the sand bags, and unite for a common cause. We decided on Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade and decided to form a non-profit.

“Jessica and I were in, of course, but we needed at least five people for the board. Linda Cole is a professional international relief worker with over 20 years of experience and know-how, she had been there since the first day. That was an obvious ask and she said yes. Her husband, Tom Cole, is also a veteran international aid worker and has been a close friend of mine since the second grade. He was in Africa at that time but was flying home, so I emailed him. He was in. He stepped off a flight after a thirty-four-hour trip right into a Bucket Brigade meeting to plan for the coming weekend.

“On Wednesday, I talked to Josiah. He was committed to getting his old neighborhood back on track, so I popped the question: Would he come on the board? He thought about it for a minute and then said he was in. Now we were five. By now, we had about thirty properties signed up for assistance inside and outside the Montecito Oaks neighborhood.

“We were leading volunteers all day and planning late into the night. The press had found out about our project, and interest in our work had grown exponentially. We expected at least 150 volunteers on Friday and possibly more on Saturday and Sunday. My experience as a volunteer firefighter and director at the Montecito Fire Protection District had convinced me that the Incident Command System model was the best way to organize different groups quickly in a crisis. I called fire chief Chip Hickman at Montecito Fire. Could he help us on Saturday? We needed someone to help organize the volunteers into teams, assign captains, and give safety briefings and deployment instructions. Chip was in. This was a tremendous relief, because this job takes focus, positivity, and a bit of gravitas. Chip had that covered.

“As the week progressed, we each focused on our areas of strength. Tom, Linda, and Josiah were most comfortable leading troops on the ground. They would be in charge of the Montecito Oaks operations area. We had dozens of properties signed up there, and we knew our way around. Jessica would take charge of logistics and I would focus on incident command. I was receiving a hundred-plus phone calls per day and at least as many texts. My phone battery was dying by noon, and I was chained to a charger to maintain communications and keep things running. I had to focus on the whole picture all the time. I built a model of each day in my mind and tried to imagine all of the tools, equipment, issues, and problems that we might face over the course of each day and then troubleshoot rapidly in the field as things developed.

“We thought we might get as many as two-hundred volunteers on Saturday. Over two-hundred-fifty people showed up. New captains came on: Ann Burgard, Jed Hirsch, John Trimble, Jim Fabio, Lisa Liles, and Keith Slocum stepped up to help lead. Sunday arrived and almost three hundred people showed up. We were working at over a dozen sites at once. Volunteers were showing up from all over the state to help. Direct Relief came through with ten-thousand dollars worth of tools and safety equipment to outfit all the volunteers. Red Cross showed up with a huge box truck to store our gear in and hundreds of masks, coveralls, and hand-washing supplies.

“By the end of the day on Sunday, we were utterly exhausted. We had helped dozens of people, dug out homes all around the community. People were excited. Momentum was building. My credit card tab was approaching twenty-five-thousand dollars and everyone wanted to keep going. As we were cleaning up, I looked over at my beautiful wife, who was filthy, smiling, and still working, and said: ‘Honey, we started a movement.’

“Seven months later, we are still working. We have moved over two million buckets of soil and hundreds of thousands of pounds of boulders and debris. We have dug out eighty-six structures, including the Chapel at La Casa De Maria. We removed the mud and debris from hundreds of native coast live oak trees, and we have cleaned all the garbage and debris out of the Ennisbrook 44-acre public open space. Over three thousand volunteers have shown up day-after-day to help heal our community.

“There is still work to be done, but we have seen what we can accomplish when we pull together as a community. Together, we will get this done.”

The lesson to be learned is that whether the problem to be resolved is mud, rockslides, drought, recycled water, traffic, road conditions, evacuations, or bridges, the first line of responsibility lies not with others, but with ourselves, to invest our own talent and resources in partnership with County, State, and Federal resources to get the job done.


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