In the annals of South Coast disasters, San Ysidro Creek stands out for the awesome power of its terrifying debris flows.
Swollen by heavy rains after wildfires, the creek periodically roars down the mountainside in a torrent of mud and rocks, cutting a swath of destruction through the heart of Montecito.
The last time was the deadliest. Four people were killed near San Ysidro Creek on January 9, when a catastrophic debris flow of mud, boulders, downed trees and pieces of buildings slammed into seven homes on Randall Road, dropped a field of boulders at the west end of Glen Oaks Drive and engulfed East Valley Lane as it raced to the sea. In all, dozens of homes along the creek were damaged or destroyed. Nine buildings at La Casa de Maria, a spiritual retreat just above Randall, were reduced to rubble.
Yet out of the tragedy may come a measure of relief for residents living near San Ysidro Creek and below East Valley Road. The county hopes to buy eight acres from eight property owners on Randall and East Valley roads – an intersection that has been hit repeatedly by debris flows – and construct a new debris basin there to help stop boulders from hurtling down San Ysidro Creek in future storms.
“There is no potential project that has more value to improving our flood readiness than the building of this debris basin,” said county Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Montecito.
For the land purchase, the county is seeking up to $19 million in grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with a $6 million match in county funds, for a total of $25 million. The land is currently assessed at about $2 million, county records show, but under FEMA rules, the purchase price would be based on pre-disaster values.
Victoria Riskin, a prominent writer and human rights activist who lost her home at 680 Randall Road on Jan. 9, said she and her neighbors believe that selling their land for a debris basin is “the right thing to do.” Her own cousin, Rebecca Riskin, perished on Glen Oaks in the avalanche of mud and rocks.
“This would be a wonderful project if it came to fruition,” Victoria Riskin said. “This beautiful town has a big scar right down the middle of it. I would feel so much better, knowing that our land would be used for some good purpose, for protection and beauty for the future.”
Victoria’s home was dislodged from its foundation on Jan. 9; the second floor slammed into a neighbor’s house, and the first floor shattered and was carried downstream. Before she evacuated, she had carefully placed sandbags in front of the doors.
“It was so pathetic, when I think about it,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of what happened.”
The proposed land purchase would include seven properties on the gently sloping west bank of the creek along Randall Road, and one property at the intersection with East Valley Road, on the east bank of the creek.
On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in closed session to direct staff to begin negotiations with the property owners as soon as possible, without waiting for FEMA to decide on the county’s application.
“We need to act now,” Williams said. “If FEMA doesn’t come through, or comes through with only a portion of the money, we will need a nonprofit partner to acquire the land and build this basin.”
In the Path of Disaster
Old newspapers tell grim stories of debris flows in 1926 and 1964 and a debris-laden flood in 1969 that damaged or obliterated homes in the area of Randall and East Valley roads. Of 24 properties that were hardest hit there on Jan. 9, four were named in old news reports as having suffered significant damage in 1926, 1964, or 1969, including two of the properties proposed for the new debris basin project. In addition, severe flooding was reported on San Ysidro Creek in the winter of 1995.
The new basin on Randall Road would be several times larger than the existing basin on San Ysidro Creek above Park Lane, county reports show. That basin, one of the smallest on the South Coast, was constructed in 1964, after the Coyote Fire.
It would take at least two years to design and construct the new basin, an enormous dirt bowl with a concrete outlet that traps rocks and allows mud – and fish – to pass through. The $2 million construction cost would be paid by county Flood Control. As part of the project, the county would provide a public trail along Randall Road.
The county’s grant application will be ranked by the state Office of Emergency Services among many competing proposals for disaster aid, and then it will be forwarded to FEMA, Jon Frye, county Flood Control engineering manager, said this week. The federal agency will likely make a final decision in March, he said.
Conservatively, the county’s application states, the new basin would help protect residents living about 300 feet of either side of the basin and 2,500 feet downstream along San Ysidro Creek.
“This would become our highest priority project,” Frye said. “The window of opportunity to build these things is in the immediate aftermath of a disaster event. Our goal is to increase the safety of the community. We think this basin will protect downstreamers in every range of flows – both debris flows and debris-laden floods.”
Throughout Montecito, 23 people died and 470 structures were damaged or destroyed on Jan. 9 as Hot Springs, Cold Springs, Montecito, San Ysidro, Romero, Buena Vista and Toro Canyon creeks jumped their banks and raced downstream. Giant boulders bobbed along on rivers of mud like corks on flowing concrete.
When she visits her ruined property today, Riskin gets disoriented in the chaos. A chunk of the stone fireplace, the underpinnings of a wooden deck and a few strings of outdoor lights still hanging in the trees are all that’s left of her house amid piles of mud and boulders. The thick oak and sycamore woodland where James Taylor, the singer, once came to perform, is gone.
“It’s such an odd feeling,” Riskin said. “As I walk it, trying to remember what was there, I don’t feel a sense of grief. It’s more bewilderment at how powerful the devastation was.”
A Neighbor’s Idea
It was Curtis Skene of 1709 East Valley Lane who first approached the Randall Road neighbors about a debris basin, Riskin said. Speaking with them one by one with compassion, she said, Skene broached the idea that they might have the option of selling their land instead of building back in the same perilous location.
Skene’s family home, located directly below Randall on the opposite side of East Valley Road, was destroyed on Jan. 9. In January, 1969, a debris-laden flood on San Ysidro Creek filled his home with three feet of mud. This time, Skene barely escaped, taking refuge under a tree as a wall of mud and rocks 10 feet high threatened to engulf him.
“One of the things I said to myself when I got out was, ‘There must be something that I can do,’” Skene told reporters at a county press conference on flood preparedness last month. He said he soon found out about debris basins.
“I learned that as old as it is, this is the technology we have that works,” Skene said. “I looked at the map of my area, thought there might be an opportunity for a debris basin, and went back and talked to Flood Control. They said, ‘If you could make it happen, that would make a giant difference.’”
This week, Skene called the supervisors’ action “wonderful news.”
In addition to Riskin and her husband, David Rintels, the owners of the Randall Road properties that are proposed for a debris basin are Lois Waldref, Andrew and Agnieszka Anthony, Anthony and Carol Nicoletti, Ronald Daniels and Joanne Rosenblatt, Brian and Karen MacDonald; and the family of the Caroline and Mark Montgomery, who were swept to their deaths on Jan. 9. Dorothy Flaster, who owns a property at 1760 East Valley Road, has been included in the project, too.
On seven of these properties, the houses were destroyed; the total assessed land value of all eight properties is currently $1.9 million, county records show. That’s down from nearly $10 million before Jan. 9.
A house at 640 Randall, belonging to Daniels, president of The Johns Hopkins University, was only partially damaged on Jan. 9; an addition has been under construction since the disaster. Daniels’ house is presently assessed at $320,000; in 2017, it was assessed at $1 million.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, a year before the disaster, records show, the eight properties were assessed at $17 million, including the value of both the land and homes.
“We would be pursuing these acquisitions on a voluntary basis,” Frye said. “Each owner has indicated a willingness to take that approach. There’s no given price right now.”
There are 17 debris basins on South Coast creeks. In addition to the Randall Road proposal, the county has applied to FEMA for $5.6 million to expand the capacity of three existing debris basins on San Ysidro, Montecito and Romero creeks. The county’s match for that project would be $1.9 million, for a total project cost of $7.5 million.
Debris basins can’t stop catastrophic debris flows like the one that hit Montecito on Jan. 9, Frye said, but they can reduce the damage by capturing boulders upstream and slowing the velocity of the fast-traveling flows. Even flooding not connected to wildfire on the South Coast typically contains a lot of debris.
In addition to the county’s initiatives, the Partnership for Resilient Communities, a local nonprofit group, is proposing to install 16 steel ring-nets across the high reaches of creeks in Montecito to capture debris. That plan is undergoing environmental review.
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.