My mother lost her home to the Tea Fire in 2008. More than 200 of her neighbors lost their homes in that fire as well. The loss of the family home is emotionally and financially devastating, as those of us who went through the recovery and rebuilding process together can attest.
This loss thrusts you into a situation in which you must cope with the emotional devastation of losing all of your possessions and place of residence, all while setting up a new life in a rental house or apartment and also making thousands of critical decisions about the future of your home and property.
Suddenly you need to become an expert in insurance company relations, building codes and required upgrades, building contracts, landscape design, paint colors, roof materials, bathroom fixtures, flooring materials. It is completely overwhelming. To make matters far worse, you only have two years to get your home completely rebuilt before you run out of insurance money for the temporary rental you are living in. If your house isn’t ready, you will have to pay your mortgage and rent at the same time. Most middle-class families can’t afford to do this. Thus, you have to rebuild in the time allowed or face the very real possibility of losing your home and property.
Building officials, from planning to architectural review, engineering to fire prevention, play a critical role in the rebuilding process and the timeline of recovery. If those officials come together and offer real, expedited plan processing, you have the best chance of getting your plans permitted for construction in time to get the job done before the insurance companies cut off benefits. Historically, in Santa Barbara, the longest and hardest part of the permit process is planning and design review. This can take up to a year under normal permitting circumstances. People who have lost their homes don’t have a year for design review. They need to get started with the building process right away.
For this reason, after the Tea Fire, Santa Barbara County allowed people to rebuild their homes “like-for-like” without a time-consuming design review process. Like-for-like, in this case, meant that the house would be the same size, bulk and scale of the original home and on the original footprint. This policy prevented people from building gigantic homes without community input. Crucially, though, it also gave people who were just trying to restore what they had before a fighting chance to get it done in the time allotted by the insurance companies. This approach helped hundreds of people to get back in their homes before the insurance money ran out.
After the disaster of 1/9/18, community leaders realized that recovering from a massive mudslide is even more difficult than recovering from a fire. There is a saying in the disaster relief world: “A fire cleans itself up.” This means, when the fire comes through, it takes away homes and possessions, but it doesn’t leave new debris to clean up. With the Montecito mudslide, the opposite is true. The debris flow deposited millions of pounds of material all over the properties in its path. The debris flow also changed the course of some of the creeks that people live along. This one-two punch makes recovery exponentially harder for the survivors of the 1/9 disaster. But it gets harder still! FEMA is literally redrawing the flood maps for Montecito and everyone who has to rebuild has to redesign their home in response to the new flood maps — the preliminary map won’t be available until June. That means that survivors can’t properly begin to redesign their homes until over five months after the disaster. It also means that they will have to design their home above the new flood levels, as established by FEMA and out of the new creek path as well. Worst of all, many of these survivors will be forced to do of all this, while struggling with the unimaginable grief of losing family members and friends.
This sets an incredibly high bar for recovery for the people who lost their homes on January 9. I believe we need to work together to help these people get over that bar.
As chief of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, I joined with over 2,700 volunteers who dedicated the last three months to helping the survivors of 01/09 get to the point where they can begin to rebuild. We all saw the hardship our neighbors were going through, and we took action and made sacrifices to help them.
Das Williams and Santa Barbara County Planning have taken action to help the survivors as well. The county created a new like-for-like ordinance, which gives people greater design flexibility for rebuilding lost homes and addresses the problems created by the flood and the new FEMA flood map. I believe that this design flexibility is an absolutely crucial tool for the survivors. If we are going to get those homes rebuilt within the two-year insurance window, despite all the mud, the relocated creeks and the new FEMA map, we are all going to need to pull together. After three whole months out there in the mud, I know that together, we can do this.
With that in mind, I ask that you please join me at the County Board of Supervisors on May 15 to support the county’s laudable efforts to help those most impacted by the Thomas Fire and flood.