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Former FEMA director James Lee Witt was one-third of a hydra-headed town hall meeting titled "Drought, Fire, & Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal" that also featured TEDx-style presentations and a Q&A with public-private officials.

Paul Wellman

Former FEMA director James Lee Witt was one-third of a hydra-headed town hall meeting titled "Drought, Fire, & Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal" that also featured TEDx-style presentations and a Q&A with public-private officials.


Town Hall Jumble — A Review

Answers Rained Down like a Winter Storm, but What Was the Question?


Wednesday night’s town hall conversation on Santa Barbara’s survival in the time of climate change ran along parallel tracks of thought that jumped occasionally but never quite met. The issues were both broad — what will the future bring? what should we do now? — and specific — how will Montecito rebuild? don’t vote for Prop. 70 — and the answers plentiful. But by the end, the question they were answering was definitely somewhere out there; I just couldn’t find it. The talk had been about fire, flood, drought, and social justice — all dire, all imminent, altogether confusing.

But maybe it was my notes, which were scribbled in the dark during the two-hour meeting. The Granada Theatre lights were dim and the house crowded with people coming and going along the narrow aisles. A VIP section was set up in the orchestra for those wanting front seats to the apocalypse, which may recur in 100 or 200 years. Or maybe next year. It all depended on who spoke.

A video is being edited of the meeting, said Karl Hutterer, one of many who quietly worked behind the scenes to help organize the summit, so readers will have a chance to catch the town hall later. A recap of the interesting bits follows.

UCSB adjunct professor Max Moritz spoke about the impact of wind, fuel, and humans on wildfire.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

UCSB adjunct professor Max Moritz spoke about the impact of wind, fuel, and humans on wildfire.

The Bren School Talks

The first segment — three-minute talks from four UCSB Bren School professors on fire, debris flows, rainfall, and disaster politics — were worthwhile, interesting, and only occasionally contradictory. Fire specialist Max Moritz noted the urbanization of wildland boundaries, which has led to more people and homes in the line of fire of increasingly hot and large wildfires. Geologist Ed Keller explained his team was using seismic information to track the January 9 debris flow, so far determining it was 20 minutes of three or four separate, mighty rock-and-mud floods that shook the earth. His takeaway was that with a 200-year or 100-year storm behind us, next year held little threat. But, he said, holding up a monitory finger, if an intense storm is forecast, listen to emergency managers.

Then ecohydrologist Naomi Tague explained that the 200-year storm could become the 100-year storm, meaning bad storms will be twice as frequent. She confirmed that the mean annual maximum temperatures had gotten warmer, and her tables showed that Santa Barbara rainfall was likely to increase — but seasons would be either very dry or very wet. With fire an annual event in Santa Barbara County, rains will again follow fire, at some point, with no time for vegetation to regrow and stabilize the soil. Result? Flood, maybe debris flow.

The first answer to “what can we do?” came from environmental political scientist Sarah Anderson. She gave us three years to forget how worried we are right now. Legislators will too, she assured. The time to get funding for disaster management is now, not later, and to get “homes retrofitted to resist fire, land use changes, and disaster management that works.”

By Paul Wellman

Professor Ed Keller grew animated describing the seismic effect of boulders landing in and floating on mud — “Bam! Bam! Bam!”

Three years? How about three months? Already, the loss of Highway 101 is yesterday’s problem, out of sight–out of mind, except perhaps by those organizing the town hall. Billed as “Drought, Fire, and Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal,” the event briefly wondered how Santa Barbara would survive economically without the 101 again. The next speaker, former FEMA director James Witt, observed that 20 percent of businesses in the disasters under his watch never came back. Of those that did, another 20 percent were soon out of business.

Even with the “generosity unleashed” by the debris flow, as Bren dean Steve Gaines said in his introductory remarks, to withstand extreme weather, a strengthening of the infrastructure was needed. Renewable energy, which got hearty applause, is a goal of another Montecito project — a micro-grid to keep Montecito fire departments and water district powered up — though the grid wasn’t specifically discussed, nor was the other disastrous infrastructure breakdown — the sewer system. The other undiscussed topic was how intractable incalculable amounts of mud can be; take La Conchita for instance. Supervisor Das Williams referred to that obliquely in a Q&A that came up later when he said that rebuilding smarter could mean building atop the mud or turning areas into parks, or quasi-flood plains.

James Lee Witt

Familiar with Santa Barbara disasters from working with the Orfalea Fund’s Aware and Prepare effort over the past 10 years, James Lee Witt was President Bill Clinton’s disaster chief. The affable Arkansan has seen it all, and he has the anecdotes to prove it. He also had alarming statistics on the increase in disasters — already this year six tornadoes in one day landed in his hometown of Dardanelle, Arkansas, compared to 26 in all of 2017 — and disaster-related spending. Disasters were open-ended events, he added; the Northridge earthquake remained an open case for 15 years. Many of Witt’s statistics were hard to confirm in the cold light of a morning fact-checking session, but his rallying cry, “Climate change is real,” was one of the few applause lines of the night.

One of Witt’s accomplishments at FEMA was to organize public-private partnerships to address disaster issues at the community level; it was called Project Impact. Several times, Witt complimented the Community Environmental Council (CEC) for pulling the town hall together, and also Brett Matthews, a tech entrepreneur whose “billionaires club” of mostly Montecito residents has hired Witt as a consultant and bootstrapped a disaster-related position at the county.

Editor’s Note: It is one, not two, county positions that The Partnership for Resilient Communities has funded, Joe Cole called to clarify, which is the name of the small group that includes Matthews, not Project Impact 2, as Witt had extemporized. Cole, a minority owner of the Indy and part of the small Partnership group, said Witt was brought by CEC for the Wednesday talk. Cole clarified that though the Partnership has received a small contribution from two billionaires, none of its members would qualify as such.

Couch Session

Those are tangible pluses for Montecito’s recovery effort, which was tangled into the next set onstage: Sigrid Wright of the CEC, who moderated questions and answers, former city fire chief Pat McElroy, CAUSE’s Maricela Morales, and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams. The upshot of the next half hour was that Montecito faced serious issues: High fire weather was on the increase. For destroyed homes, adjacent creeks would rise again. Flood control was needed before the next one. Would creativity resist NIMBYism? Bright spot: Architects were working with residents and the county to build new homes that have all the right stuff: energy efficiency and generation, fire resistance, and more.

By Paul Wellman

In a question and answer session, Community Environmental Council Executive Director Sigrid Wright (left) spoke with former Santa Barbara City Fire Department chief Pat McElroy, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) Executive Director Maricela Morales, and Santa Barbara County 1st District Supervisor Das Williams.

Which raised the issue of housing. Morales pointed out that Santa Barbara’s limited and ultra-expensive housing market meant essential workers, even well-paid first responders, lived outside the community. This also caused commuter greenhouse gas production daily. Santa Barbarans are so savvy about the causes of climate change that the words didn’t even need to be said.

And the outside world faced serious issues. Climate change impacts would hit the poor the hardest, said Morales. Even in Montecito’s disaster, one-third of the debris-flow victims — in a town that is 97 percent white, she said — were immigrants. The effects of climate change in forcing populations to move — because of sea rise, food shortage, or war — always causes incredible hardships. “If our system was paralyzed with 50,000 Syrian refugees,” Das Williams observed, “what will millions of Bangladeshis … or Floridians … do to it?”

Oh, Prop. 70? This ballot initiative wants two-thirds of the Legislature to vote before cap-and-trade funds can be spent. No doubt aimed at Governor Brown’s bullet train project — which runs through the not-likely-to-be-inundated-by-sea-level-rise San Joaquin Valley and is encountering cost overruns of legendary proportions — Prop. 70 seeks to kneecap the state’s budget process, Morales said, and stall California’s leadership in climate change tactics.

Did climate change cause the Montecito disaster? Maybe that was the question of the night. For this climate-change believer — unlike the sole skeptic keeping an informational vigil outside the Granada — the answer is obviously affirmative. Last year broke two long-standing fire aphorisms, Pat McElroy said. The first was that the north-facing slope of the Santa Ynez Range doesn’t burn; it did, twice. The second was that fire moves from the backcountry to the front, not the other way around.

But skeptic or believer, neither viewpoint is any comfort to Montecitans who face being out of their homes — and paying a mortgage all the while —for two years or more. That’s more than most homeowner’s insurance will cover, so they face paying rent and a mortgage. The next meeting on Montecito, being held at the County Administration Building on May 1 at 6:30 p.m., will have more information about recovery. It will likely bring no more comfort, but it should add clarity to the enormous task ahead.

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