The mood in the room was upbeat, almost cheerful, as the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors discussed the newly completed After-Action Report for the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow that pinpoints where emergency managers performed well and where they fell short. The supervisors praised Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director Rob Lewin for his grit and leadership, and they briefly discussed the OEM’s “opportunities for improvement,” such as to “formalize and socialize” evacuation planning, “refine and enhance” public warnings, and work more closely with local government partners. The board was ready to file the report and move on, but then David Boyd brought reality crashing down.
Boyd, a Montecito resident on the executive committee of the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group (MERRAG, pronounced “mirage”), solemnly asked the supervisors why the report only mentioned in brief the violent deaths of 23 men, women, and children in the debris flow and why it performed no analysis of the causes or circumstances around their demise. The report was not properly self-critical in identifying the OEM’s shortcomings, Boyd charged, and it did not do enough to address why residents weren’t accurately informed of the danger they faced.
Of the 23 killed, 19 lived in what the county termed a “voluntary” evacuation zone. A public survey revealed many residents were confused by OEM’s unclear and conflicting warning messages. The county has also been criticized for drawing evacuation boundaries along the east-west line of Highway 192 when predicted debris flows were certain to travel along the north-south creek routes.
Lewin and the supervisors were quick to defend the county, explaining they made the best decisions they could with the information they had. They also stressed the psychic toll experienced by staff from the disaster, the deadliest in Santa Barbara history. Boyd then suggested the county perform a “root cause analysis” — like the kind done after an industrial accident or in response to the death of a firefighter in the field — to determine exactly how and why the overwhelming number of deaths occurred. Lewin said he was unaware of any such report for civilians caught in natural disasters. Supervisor Das Williams asked Lewin to explore what options may be available.