1/9 Debris Flow: Two Years Later

Santa Barbara County Continues to Heal, Rebuild in Wake of Montecito’s Deadliest Disaster

Photo: Paul WellmanIn the wake of 2018’s 1/9 Debris Flow, a group of Montecitans formed the nonprofit Partnership for Resilient Communities to install six Geobrugg flexible debris-control ring nets, the last two of which went up in November.

On January 9, 2018, 23 people were swept up and killed by the massive debris flows that tore through Montecito. The remains of two children, 17-year-old Jack Cantin and 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa, are yet to be found. 

Two years later, the area has begun to heal and prepare in the case of another natural disaster. The county and surrounding community are taking steps to further rebuild ​— ​both structurally and emotionally.

“To do justice in the memory of those we have lost, we must do substantive work to make sure the tragedy doesn’t happen again,” said County Supervisor Das Williams, whose 1st District encompasses the disaster area. 

County Efforts

Improving the existing debris basins and building additional ones are large parts of the substantive work to which Williams refers. 

Two years ago today, rain was pouring down at 0.66 inches every 15 minutes, and the Montecito debris basins were overflowing within 30 minutes of the record-breaking downpour. 

Last September, the County Board of Supervisors voted to rework the debris basins on three of Montecito’s creeks ​— ​including expanding the Cold Springs Basin by a third ​— ​and begin construction on a larger, 10-acre debris basin off Randall Road, to be completed by summer 2021. 

Williams also said that the county is working on a number of projects to repair the roads that were destroyed from the disasters. In November, Caltrans opened the last of the six State Route 192 bridges damaged during the debris flow, one of the final steps of its $30 million project to restore the backroad connecting Carpinteria and Montecito.

“We are right on track to begin the debris basin projects this summer, and we are going to begin fixing the roads as soon as the present rainy season ends,” Williams said. He said that the debris basin projects combined will cost the county about $45 million.

He said $20 million of the funds will come from the South Coast Flood Management Account to start, but he also intends to secure FEMA grants and advocate for putting a “decent portion of the Edison settlement toward flood control,” referring to the roughly $50 million settlement the county will receive from the public-entity fire lawsuit in the wake of the 2017 Thomas Fire.

Nature’s Efforts

The Thomas Fire, which preceded the debris flow, severely burned Montecito’s five main watersheds. The recently burned watersheds created water-repellent soil, which in turn allowed the rainfall runoff carrying the debris to travel faster. 

Mother Nature has been kind to the area in the two years since the disaster. According to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor, the watershed is about 80 percent recovered going into the third rainy season post debris flow. Although the risk of another debris flow is still there, it is substantially reduced. 

“Since the debris flow, we have been blessed with very wet winters that have aided in vegetation regrowth,” Taylor said. “There is always a threat for wildfires, but not at a Thomas Fire–level threat because the vegetation is young and healthy.”

Just one year ago, the watershed recovery was only at about 35 percent. 

Community Efforts

In addition to the debris basins, a group of Montecitans formed a nonprofit group known as the Partnership for Resilient Communities in the wake of the 1/9 Debris Flow to install six Geobrugg flexible debris-control nets.

Loosely referred to as ring nets, the nets resemble a curtain made of metal rings that hangs high enough above creeks to allow for wildlife and stream passage but is still able to trap and block debris in case of another debris flow. The last two of the six nets were installed in November.

“We’ve seen what they have done around the world, and we told the community that we would share that research here,” said Pat McElroy, executive director of the Partnership for Resilient Communities and retired Santa Barbara City fire chief. “We did exactly that, and I’m proud we have installed six.”

There are two nets in Buena Vista Canyon, two in Cold Spring Canyon, and two in San Ysidro Canyon. McElroy said that after each rain, he is required to inspect the nets within 48 hours to ensure no fish or other wildlife are blocked or trapped by the nets.

“So far this winter, we just haven’t seen that type of rain,” McElroy said, adding that the nets were inspected after each rain but that none were backed up enough to affect wildlife. This is especially important in Montecito because the nets are the first to be installed in an area with endangered wildlife species like the steelhead trout and red-legged frog. 

The Montecito and greater surrounding Santa Barbara community is tight knit, which has become increasingly evident in the wake of the 1/9 Debris Flow and other deadly disasters. These efforts are the beginning of helping the community heal together.

“In many communities, there are about three degrees of separation between people,” Williams said. “Here, there is one degree of separation. Even if you didn’t directly know one of the 23 lost in the debris flow, you know someone who did.

“I knew some of the folks who died, and that day is forever scorched into me. I am determined that the county learn every lesson there is to learn to prevent it from ever happening again.”

The Bucket Brigade, a community volunteer group that formed in the wake of the debris flow, has dug mud and debris out of homes, searched for lost belongings, cleaned up open spaces, and more. The group has over 3,000 members.

Keith Hamm, operations director for the Bucket Brigade and a former Independent reporter, said most recently the group has focused its efforts on long-term recovery projects like repairing damaged walking trails. The pathway along North Jameson Road, for example, was destroyed by the debris flow. The Bucket Brigade directed the community partner project to build a new pedestrian path, connecting Montecito’s upper and lower villages.

“Kids didn’t have a safe route to walk to school after the debris flow,” Hamm said. “There was no real walkway, even after clearing out a lot of the debris prior.”

At the two-year mark, the organization is still working on projects to help clean up and rebuild, but they are also starting to shift toward emergency preparedness. Hamm said 2020 will bring a much larger push toward helping neighborhoods form smaller groups to prepare for an emergency. The Bucket Brigade’s step-by-step guide on how to form these groups can be found at sbbucketbrigade.org/neighborhood-action-kit-2.

A commemorative ceremony to honor the victims and their families will be held at Westmont College Thursday, January 9, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

CORRECTION: Caltrans’ bridge repair project cost $30 million, not $20 million as originally reported.

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