Although the sun has poked through the clouds a few times since this week’s series of storms began hitting Southern California on Sunday afternoon, colder temperatures, heavy rain, and occasional high winds have been the system’s trademark. On Tuesday, the County Fire Department responded to a tornado near the Ocean Meadows Golf Course in Goleta after the funnel tore down a fence, knocked over a large tree, and ripped shingles off a home’s roof.
The main concern, however, has been soil infirmities caused by several large forest fires in the area over the past couple of years. While there has been ample time to complete hydromulching operations in areas denuded by the Gap, Tea, and Jesusita fires, as well as debris dam installations in the creeks that fire areas drain into, officials have been keeping a close eye on the swollen, chocolate-colored streams which have inevitably carried sediment down from the mountains. With rains expected to extend into Friday, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch on Sunday evening in order to prepare residents for potential flooding and debris flows.
El Niño conditions, consisting of warmer than average ocean surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, have been brewing since the end of summer, lending to the warm, sunny spell enjoyed across Southern California for the past month or so. A huge high pressure system, the only thing between pleasant weather and the violent storms that often accompany an El Niño, dissipated this week, leading to the deluge that drenched the entire state. City and county work crews, which have been busy since July erecting debris racks and clearing flotsam along the upper reaches of waterways, were well prepared for nasty weather, and the Forest Service had coated burn areas with a special groundcover called hydromulch to stabilize them before higher than average winter rains arrived. With a total of 20 inches expected to pelt the higher mountain elevations by week’s end, this round of storms may very well rival the bout of foul weather that buried several La Conchita homes in the spring of 2005. Many area residents have heard the call to preparedness, though, with more than 20,000 sandbags being distributed by city and county governments on the South Coast. Although storm damage has been minimal thus far, authorities have been adamant that people remain vigilant until the weather passes.
The county readied its Emergency Operations Center but are keeping it on inactive standby against the possibility that city governments and the County Flood Control District become overwhelmed the with storm damage, stated County Emergency Operations Chief Michael Harris. Should that occur, County EOC will coordinate multi-agency emergency response efforts. In the meantime, he said, when the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning—an upgrade from watch status that indicates imminent flooding—they directly notify Emergency Operations, which in turn notifies law enforcement officials who can increase patrols along creek corridors likely to flood. City Fire is using this week’s weather event to flex the muscles of its brand new Emergency Operations Center, located in the recently refurbished downtown fire station. Construction for the new center—at a cost of $300,000—finished this summer, but the new communication hardware was not installed until recently.
Across the state, massive swells hammered west-facing beaches and heavy snow fell in the taller mountains further inland. While high seas and heavy rainfall have an immediate effect locally, Harris noted that even the effects of snowstorms will be felt. Closed-off sections of the I-5 corridor will force many trucks to use Highway 101 instead, increasing traffic through Santa Barbara.
Rains have posed a special challenge for Santa Barbara’s homeless population. Since a homeless man—known as Freedom—froze to death in December, many serving area homeless have been adamant that no one else suffer the same fate. Two South Coast churches opened their doors as temporary shelters, in part because Santa Barbara’s main shelter, Casa Esperanza, had filled four nights in a row. In response, the Unitarian Church in downtown Santa Barbara opened a “warming shelter” Sunday night, accepting 25 visitors. Some were turned away due to space limitations. Monday night, another 25 stayed, but none were turned away. Some slept outside under the eaves; another had walked shoeless—wearing only socks—from the County Jail where he’d been released earlier that night. While Casa was full, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission did not fill its 134 beds, thanks to a belief among some in the homeless community that Rescue Mission requires guests to subject themselves to religious indoctrination in exchange for shelter. “To me it’s unconscionable that some would extract a religious confession from some of the homeless at a time of acute need,” said Rolf Geyling of the Rescue Mission. “We do not do that here.”