“The community has to learn to take the hit and survive it together,” says Abe Powell. “Outside assistance is not always going to come.”
Powell is the hero, co-founder, and executive director of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade (SB3), and he is currently expanding the scope of the organization beyond response into disaster prevention, preparedness, and resiliency building.
“Based on the past 10 years, there’s been a dramatic change in natural disasters, a reflection of climate change,” he explains. “We’re not prepared for it. What are we going to do about it?”
Abe and his wife, Jessica, created the Bucket Brigade on January 28, 2018, to help the community respond to the disastrous 1/9 Debris Flow, which came right after the Thomas Fire. Since then, more than 3,000 volunteers have helped dig the community out and get Montecito and Santa Barbara back on track. Current SB3 projects include organizing a labor force — supported U.S. Department of Labor funding — to improve the safety and aesthetic of county roads impacted by those disasters and subsequent storms.
John Abraham Powell was born in Stanford, California in 1969. His nickname “Abe” was inspired by the song “Abie Baby” from the 1968 musical Hair. His mom was born at Cottage Hospital, and they returned to Santa Barbara when he was seven. In 1976, his father, George, started the skateboard company Powell Corp with partner Tom Sims; in 1978, they teamed up with Stacy Peralta to form Powell Peralta.
“Dad was a good engineer with an entrepreneurial mind,” says Abe, who worked for the skateboard company as a kid.
“In 1977, we’d just moved to Sycamore Canyon,” he recounts. “It was literally our backyard. We were playing street football, and all of a sudden a big fire was coming down the mountain.” His parents put him on the roof while they fought the fire.
“Ever since, so many things have happened,” he says. “We’ve gone through so many disasters. This has been woven into my life.” He describes living in Santa Barbara thus: “For whatever reason, it’s sunny and 70s until it’s not. Then it’s chaos. It gets real.”
He graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1987 and chose to go to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “I didn’t want to go to a big state school,” he explains. “The idea of a small East Coast college appealed to me and I wanted to be near rock climbing.” The Shawangunk Mountains are close to Vassar, and that’s where climbers John Bachar and Peter Croft became Abe’s heroes; posters of them adorned his college dorm. After graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1993, he returned to Santa Barbara to work for his dad.
During the 1995 storms, Abe got trapped in his driveway for a week. “I lived in a trailer on Mountain Drive,” he says. “We dug people out. We were all stuck together. There were no evacuations.” The community rallied to help each other, and a huge transformation took place. There was so much spirit in working together than they put on a full-cast production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the next summer.
“Community is about pulling together as opposed to being pulled apart,” he explains. “The outcome can be better when you got your ass kicked and work together.”
Abe served as a volunteer fireman for five years, and acted as the director of Tea Fire relief services for the Mountain Drive Community Association for two years following the 2008 fire. In 2012, he was elected to the Montecito Fire Protection District.
At the time, people were being forced to bring their driveways up to new codes in order to reconstruct, but that stopped people from being able to rebuild their homes. Abe questioned how they could do this. Within months of his election, the policy was reversed. “There is a whole lot of power in organizing and infiltrating agencies,” he admits.
Abe is one of the most enthusiastic and passionate people I’ve ever interviewed. He speaks fast and furiously, and I have a hard time jotting down everything he’s telling me and keeping up with his stories.
He tells me about a Bucket Brigade workday in April of 2018: “We were looking for the lost children,” he recalls. “We are digging and everything I see is a kid. I was coming unglued. I felt I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I felt my mind was playing tricks on me. I felt terror that I wouldn’t find them and terror that I’d find them. It was a lose-lose. Being in a prolonged search can be overwhelming.”
But now, Abe and the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade are focusing on prevention and preparedness. “What can we do to be ready?” he asks. “Let’s set it up if it happens again. Let’s treat people right.”
Abe Powell answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
My namesake, Abraham Lincoln. He led the American people through some very challenging times. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, and it cost him everything, but he accomplished what he set out to do under hellish circumstances and he took his people with him. I feel most alive and useful here on earth during challenging times and I have often found myself in a leadership role during a crisis. In those times, I think I wish I were more like him.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Massive energy. People say it is too much sometimes. They are probably right, but that is how I am built. I have to play the hand I have been dealt.
What do you like most about your job?
The daily challenge of it: to help people see themselves and the world in a different way. This country was built on the idea of individual liberty, but that ideal is best served when the individual voluntarily chooses to join with and participate in a community; to invite people to voluntarily help each other and to enjoy it so much that they decide to do it again; to help people see that putting other people first is a true sign of real strength.
My job is to find ways to build that kind of strength — that kind of collective muscle — in any community. If a community has this kind of strength, it has the best chance of surviving and recovering from a crisis. Without it, there is chaos.
Who do you most admire?
Martin Luther King Jr. The most badass American since the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln. Possibly the most badass American period. History will decide. I admire his work and try to think of ways I can follow his lead in my own way in my own life. These days I listen to his speeches when I can’t sleep at night. It puts things into perspective and helps me to see that there is always a way forward, even if you can’t see what it is just yet.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Well, at this point I would say it is one of two things: Either gratitude for what I already have or lying in bed with my wife listening to our kids being nice to each other and enjoying it when they don’t know we’re listening. Maybe that’s really the same thing actually.
What is your greatest fear?
Something would happen to my kids.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Naps. I hardly ever get one, but when I do, it is heaven.
What is you current state of mind?
Openness to the possibilities of life mixed with deep concern for the future.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Positive energy. People who light up a room just by being themselves. Some people can put folks in a good mood just by showing up. That is a very good trait.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
Persistence. People change and make mistakes and generally are human. True friends stick with each other through it all.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Holy Smokes! And a couple of things that aren’t really fit for print.
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be disarming. I have been told I am generally the opposite of that.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would ask for more patience. My M.O. has been “more, bigger, faster, now” for a long time. I just turned 50. I would like to shift the approach: to patience, persistence, and insistence. I think those are the three legs of the tripod that supports lasting change.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Finding such a wonderful wife, convincing her to marry me, staying married though some hard times, and raising two beautiful young humans together.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara, California. Have you been? It’s amazing.
What is your most treasured possession?
Time. It is just so valuable and it keeps slipping away. I can’t stand it.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My sister Trish. She is absolutely nuts and is also a genuine force of nature. If you haven’t seen her in action, you don’t know what you are missing.
What is your motto?
On what occasion do you lie?
When I am trying to surprise someone with something cool or when I failed to live up to my own ethical standards and values.