Nature Finds a Way After the 1/9 Debris Flow

Out of the Montecito Mudslide Comes an Even More Magical Wildlife Retreat

Credit: Holly Lepore

“Nature truly is an awesome force,” says landscape designer Margie Grace, “both in terms of destruction and in terms of renewal.” The founder of Grace Design Associates witnessed nature’s competing forces in working on properties that were devastated by the Montecito debris flow of January 9, 2018. 

One such project was for Penny Bianchi, whose ravaged garden reemerged as a thriving habitat less than a year after the catastrophic event. Even though the debris flows left her property covered in three feet of mud and detritus, it never even occurred to Bianchi not to restore her beloved garden. A National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat that was home to coyotes, bobcats, hawks, quail, doves, owls, mallards, songbirds, bats, butterflies, native pollinators, reptiles, and amphibians, the 2.5-acre property sits at the entrance to the 42-acre Ennisbrook Preserve and is bordered by Oprah’s estate on two other sides.

Bianchi had a premonition before that fateful day in 2018. Their house was not in the mandatory evacuation zone, but she fibbed to her husband, Adam, telling him on the way home from dinner at Birnam Wood that the zone was expanded and they had to leave. “I just lied,” she admitted. “I just made it up because I was so worried that he wouldn’t want to evacuate.” 
So the couple, who are partners in McCormick Interiors, were safely ensconced at the Bacara when the massive debris flow struck, killing 23 people and destroying more than 400 homes. 

“Our neighbor said it sounded like there was a freight train in the house,” said Bianchi, who had to wait three weeks before they could access the property, accompanied by a mental-health specialist in trauma. “I told her, we’re alive, my daughter got the cats out … so I’m not going to freak out,” said Bianchi.

Photo: Holly Lepore

“The scope and scale of the damage was mind-boggling,” said Grace. “I’m trained as a geologist, so I know that this could happen, and I couldn’t believe that this happened.… Geology in action is really a lot for humans to absorb.”

Grace’s firm and contractors Giffin & Crane, who were both part of the original build team in 2004, came back on board to reconstruct two decimated structures ​— ​a garage and guest house ​— ​as well as the expansive gardens. Thanks to strict county regulations to build the main house two feet above base flood elevation, no mud got inside, although every single item in the antique-filled main house had to be removed and cleaned because of toxic contaminants from the firefighters’ boots.

While the Bianchi’s had excellent insurance, the $900,000 allocated for mud removal wasn’t nearly enough to get rid of it all. “I told them that’s all we’re spending, and then I’m making friends with the rest of the mud,” said Bianchi when they got the $1.6 million estimate to complete the rest of the job. She challenged Grace to figure out something to do with the mud.
“It was like, ‘When given lemons, make lemonade;’ this was, ‘Given mud, make mountains,’” laughed Grace. They created mounds along the property line, designed a new hill near the duck pond, and utilized all the boulders, which would have been even more expensive to move than the mud.

“Now our favorite part of the whole garden is the hill that was the result of the extra mud,” said Bianchi. “Margie designed steps up to it, and, where it was flat before, there’s now a beautiful view.”

About 95 percent of the plants had to be replaced ​— ​“what a silver lining,” said Bianchi ​— ​and now the 28-foot-tall hill features sycamore trees and poppies. “Everything I put in the ground grew lightning fast; those trees just shot up,” said Grace. “She has bobcats; she has all kinds of birds, raptors all the way down to the couple of geese and hummingbirds. It is an extraordinary piece of property. I don’t know whether the good juju is part of the property or whether Penny brings that, but her roses even bloom in the shade; it’s just magical. Things just bounce back. Everything that gets put in the ground, you kind of have to stand back; it grows so fast it’ll knock you over.”

Bianchi is pleased with the rebirth. “Some of my friends still think that we’re strange for wanting to be here,” she said. “But we love it here, and we don’t feel worried about it happening again at all.”

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