Caltrans employees work to open clogged median drainage culverts that caused freeway flooding Tuesday morning. (Jan. 5, 2016)
Paul Wellman

The first major El Niño storm hit Santa Barbara early Tuesday morning, snarling traffic, lashing the waterfront, and delivering much-welcomed rainfall to the drought-ravaged region. While a jackknifed big rig temporarily shut down southbound Highway 101 through downtown during rush hour, Santa Barbara Harbor denizens hunkered down behind long-established preventative measures, including giant sand-berm buffers against peak high tides and a forecasted 18-foot groundswell.

By noon on Tuesday, mud and debris flooded from a clogged storm drain at the Solimar Fire site in Ventura County, pinching southbound Highway 101 for several hours (pictured above). Backed-up traffic was diverted along Pacific Coast Highway and turned around at La Conchita until lanes reopened late that afternoon. Also on Tuesday, a hydroplaning motorist collided with another on Highway 154 near Los Olivos. Both drivers ​— ​one with major injuries ​— ​required extrication from their crushed vehicles.

A jack-knifed semi blocked two lanes of southbound traffic in heavy rains on the 101 just before the Garden Street exit on Tuesday morning.
Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy said his department has been collaborating for months with Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and harbor officials on storm prep, adding that County Flood Control crews have been clearing creeks since summer and the newly widened mouth of Mission Creek can now handle a heavier volume coming through the city’s watershed. “We’re trying to be prepared, but it’s not like ISIS is running down Sycamore Creek,” he said. Earlier in the week, McElroy did express concern about the denude hillsides in the wake of the Solimar Fire. He’s hoping the K-rails Caltrans recently installed along 500 feet of the northbound shoulder will sufficiently fend off any mudslides the rains may trigger as winter progresses. An estimated 20,000 motorists ​— ​many of them Santa Barbara nurses, cops, and teachers ​— ​commute along that route every weekday morning.

As of midmorning Wednesday, rainfall totals topped 3.28 inches on San Marcos Pass and 3.01 inches downtown. Lightning and hail also lashed the area. Extended forecasts show the possibility of light rain this weekend and a chance of showers on 1/13.


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