This Did Not Have to Happen

Open Letter to Supervisors Williams and Hartmann,

While it may seem too soon to express these types of concerns — and I am beyond sad for those impacted by the mudslides — I want my government officials to know that I am distraught because I am convinced that this did not have to happen. Our government, whom we as taxpayers directly fund, is supposed to take care of us. And I do offer my gratitude to all the public employees who are working to help those currently facing unthinkable challenges.

Tragedy struck several families my family is very close to, and our entire community is shocked and in disbelief. While I want to express my sincere gratitude to the hard-working, dedicated civil servants and volunteers throughout our region, I want to also articulate the following concerns and recommendations to our elected officials as they consider ways to avoid similar catastrophes in the future:

National: Climate scientists throughout the globe acknowledge that a warming Earth pumps more water into the atmosphere, which eventually returns with a vengeance. Their models correctly predicted more extremes (e.g., extreme dryness/drought, extreme storms, fires, flooding, etc.), yet the majority of our national politicians have become corrupted by personal agendas and currently treat talented scientists with distain. The way we approach climate issues has to change immediately, and it should serve as justification for serious campaign finance reform.

Regional: Deregulation of utility and energy companies has resulted in lax monitoring and insufficient infrastructure maintenance in order to increase profits. We experienced this with the Refugio oil spill. Some believe that the Thomas Fire may have started because of a utility line failure. While this has yet to be verified, eyewitnesses claim they observed a power pole explode near Thomas Aquinas College when the inferno began. Infrastructure maintenance and improvement must become budgetary and regulatory priorities.

Local: People lost homes and many perished while in the designated voluntary evacuation zone (outside of the mandatory evacuation zone). Many relocated to the voluntary evacuation zone and encountered a false sense of security. Office of Emergency Management officials prepared a map for their January 5 public briefing that correctly predicted that the places to watch most closely were the streams and related low-lying areas. However, evacuation warning maps appeared to be based on elevation contours or other criteria, not stream morphology.

Each of these concerns can be addressed with pragmatic solutions — provided there is sufficient motivation. This incident should remind us all that we remain at risk because of misplaced priorities. In fact, more rain is about to strike, so there is no time to lose. As the next storm approaches, please commission a more appropriate mandatory evacuation map that accounts for low-lying areas downgradient of precipitation cells and within or adjacent to riparian morphologic patterns. Since we have multiple large burn footprints in the region, it would be helpful to have this span the entire South Coast.

Bottom Line: Our dear friends did not have to perish. Let’s take this opportunity to create a safer community in their honor.

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