A new debris basin to protect the area of Montecito downstream from Randall Road got an influx of $13.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The announcement by Congressmember Salud Carbajal on Wednesday gives a green light to a project encouraged into reality by Curtis Skene, who grew up in the neighborhood and witnessed both the 1969 and 2018 debris flows.
The eight properties on Randall Road were wiped out in January 2018 along with about 85 others downstream after the San Ysidro Creek rose over its banks when a freak rainstorm broke over the hills that were left raw and exposed by the Thomas Fire. The early-morning cloudburst sent mud, boulders, and trees crashing through homes, and four people lost their lives in that part of Montecito. Altogether, 23 people died and about 400 structures were ruined.
As neighbors gathered together and sought solace from each other, Skene learned that most of the Randall Road residents did not want to return to the destroyed and sorrow-ridden block. Through a nonprofit he created called Partners in Community Renewal, or RenewSB, Skene started talking with the government agencies that would be involved in the massive undertaking to allow a big dig in the heart of rural Montecito, with The Upper Village to the west and the Valley Club to the east. He said he made the case to state agencies like Caltrans and California’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), describing how the mud went into the 101 and almost closed the entire state.
By last May, the County of Santa Barbara had purchased one of the properties for $4 million, a move that FEMA interpreted to indicate the seriousness with which the county wanted to build a debris basin.
“I give great credit to Tom Fayram and Das Williams,” Skene said of the strategy to buy the property. Williams is the area’s 1st District supervisor, and Fayram is the head of Public Works’ Flood Control division. “The money comes from Flood Control, and Tom doesn’t have a big budget. He’s a great steward of what he does and what he has to do. … FEMA saw that the county had its own skin in the property and looked favorably on the project.”
Tom Fayram said he was “surprised and elated at the size of the grant” and sent the credit for a grant of that magnitude to the agencies involved, Williams, and Carbajal. The congressmember had taken officials from the permitting agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Services, to visit the Randall Road neighborhoods; he also made the phone calls to keep FEMA focused on how important the basin would be to protect the community.
The FEMA grant covers a full 75 percent of the roughly $18 million project, the maximum amount the agency will give. The remaining $4.5 million to buy the remaining properties, sculpt the basin itself, and landscape the edges to screen it from East Valley Road has already been earmarked in Flood Control’s funding, Fayram said. The work should begin next spring and be finished by fall 2021.
“We can, and should, honor the memories of those we lost that horrible day by doing everything possible to prevent future disasters,” said Carbajal, who represented the Montecito area for 12 years as its county supervisor before winning the congressional seat. “Wildfires and floods, fueled by climate change, are only getting worse over time, and we must adapt our infrastructure to reflect our reality.”
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