Mother Nature knows how to throw a hell of a party. By the time the curtain fell this Monday night, enough rain had fallen to raise the water level in Lake Cachuma by 32 feet. At peak flows, Cachuma was rising at rate of two feet per hour. Before the recent rains, Cachuma was around 31 percent full; as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, it was edging up toward 75 percent capacity and still rising. Runoff waters were reported flowing into the South Coast’s single most important water source at a rate of 50,000 cubic feet per second. Translated into layperson’s terms, Lake Cachuma experienced a deposit of 22 billion gallons.
That was the good news delivered unto the Santa Barbara County Supervisors at a special briefing this Tuesday morning on the spate of storms rolling through Santa Barbara and much of California. The other good news was that after record-setting rains, first responders reported no one had been killed by the storm, no one was missing, and no major injuries were sustained.
Given the unprecedented intensity and volume of the deluge — 13 inches within 24 hours along San Marcos Pass, six inches along the South Coast, and four inches in Northern Santa Barbara County — this information passed as nearly miraculous news.
“That’s a really amazing fact,” Supervisor Das Williams exclaimed.
Williams represents the district that bore the brunt of the historic debris flow that ravaged Montecito precisely and exactly five years ago Monday. Twenty-three people died that day; 500 structures were destroyed and damaged.
Williams said residents of district were to be excused if they felt “cursed” by the timing of Monday’s pleural pounding. January 9, he said, made the community “more resilient.” A brand-new debris basin—much bigger than the other two in Montecito — had been built on Randall Road where seven homes had been destroyed or damaged by the January 9 mayhem in 2018. That debris basin was 30 percent full as of Tuesday, according to Scott McGolpin, County Public Works director. The two smaller debris basins in Montecito were full, he said. The Santa Monica Debris Basin in Carpinteria, he said, was 80 percent full. McGolpin said he is asking the Army Corp of Engineers to help and the plan is to remove all the contents of those debris basins and relocate them to Goleta Beach for what is called “beach nourishment.”
Steel debris nets were installed upslope along Montecito creeks to block potentially deadly rocks and boulders from caroming downstream. Based on all this, Williams concluded, the people of Montecito have grown more resilient — not less — because of the events of January 9.
“I don’t think we’re cursed,” he stated. “I think we are truly, truly blessed.”
For many in the first-responder universe, now may not be the time for biblical reflection. Other storms are rolling in. Another couple of inches are expected to drop this weekend. Thunderstorms are predicted for the area before that.
Forty-seven roads — Highway 101 and Highway 154 most notably — were either blocked off or otherwise rendered impassable this Monday; nearly 500 homes were ordered evacuated. Sheriff Bill Brown and the accumulated fire chiefs throughout the county are currently working to allow evacuated residents to repopulate the areas that they’d been ordered to leave.
There are pressing infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. People may not have died, but roughly 400 called for help and about 100 needed to be rescued either from swift water or deep-water situations. Damage was inflicted to private property and public infrastructure.
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In the city of Santa Barbara, for example, reportedly 5,000 gallons of raw sewage got loose; public health officials ordered the public to stay away from West Beach. City residents had apparently sought to expedite the discharge of raging storm waters — deep enough in some Eastside neighborhoods to ride on kayaks or paddleboards — by popping open a few manhole covers, thus inundating the city’s sewage system with volumes far exceeding its capacity to process. According to City Water Czar Joshua Haggmark, the volume of water flowing into the wastewater treatment plant was five times higher than normal. Some drains were likewise overwhelmed with jets of water reportedly spouting four feet into the air.
Haggmark, who’d begun his workday at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, had little time for special briefings; the caretaker for the city’s Gibraltar Reservoir — which spilled last Friday morning for the first time since 2018 — needed to be dug out so that he could come and go.
With more volatile storms on the horizon, the supervisors heard how it’s not always easy to plan for their arrival. They also heard the challenges this volatility — and unpredictability — can pose when attempting to communicate evacuation orders to the public. Sheriff Brown described in some detail how approaching one Monday’s press briefing, he’d been prepared to order everyone living in the burn scar areas of the Thomas, Alisal, and Cave fires to immediately evacuate. But shortly before taking to the podium, Brown said, he learned from the National Weather Service that especially intense flash flooding was imminent. The intensity of the rains hit unprecedented levels. At San Marcos Pass, the rain was coming down at a rate of 1.56 inches per hour. Down lower, it was .6 to .8 inches an hour. It would not be safe to have so many cars on the road, Brown concluded, so he issued shelter-in-place orders instead, with the proviso that the evacuation orders would be soon to follow. Shortly after, however, Brown said, he learned that the flash flood orders wouldn’t be lifted until midnight.
If this was confusing to the public at large, the supervisors were told, it was confusing to the people issuing them as well.
“The storm was more intense than anticipated,” Brown would tell the supervisors more than once.
To the extent any of the supervisors had problems with this, they kept such concerns to themselves. Supervisor Bob Nelson, who represents the 4th District, expressed vexation that the lion’s share of the public safety resources were dedicated to South Coast communities. Orcutt, which is part of Nelson’s district, took the brunt of the storm up north, he said, and blamed a debris flow for the destruction of two residential properties. Nelson was most upset, however, by the lack of focus he charged had been placed on evacuating the homeless people living in the Santa Ynez River riverbeds in Lompoc and Santa Maria.
“I’m really disappointed on the lack of emphasis on those individuals of our community,” Nelson stated. “It would seem these people are our most vulnerable.”
Brown stated he’d reached out to the police chiefs of Santa Maria and Lompoc offering to help. Brown said riverbed squatters had, in fact, been notified. Most, he said, had “self-evacuated,” adding, “It would have been impossible for them not to.” Brown said departmental helicopters had been deployed to the riverbed to warn people setting up camps. Nelson was not impressed, noting that those flights had taken place six days before the floods.
“We had a child born in the riverbed the day of the storm,” Nelson added.
Brown was not inclined to back down. “The proof is in the pudding,” he noted. “There were no fatalities, nobody was missing, and [there were] no major injuries.” Besides, he said, evacuations are not mandated for uninhabitable spaces.
George Chapjian, head of the county’s department of Social Services, sought to assure Supervisor Nelson that county outreach workers had in fact delivered flyers or contacted riverbed residents directly via cell phone texts. But in the moment, Chapjian could not summon to mind Nelson’s name to address him directly — as is the protocol — despite considerable effort. Supervisor Williams — instated as board chair earlier in the meeting — sought to alleviate the awkwardness of the moment.
“George, don’t worry about that,” Williams said, “Supervisor Nelson’s new mustache threw me off too.” Nelson is now sporting a cowboy-style handlebar mustache as opposed to the full-beard look he’s worn in recent months. Santa Barbara City and County officials and Incident Management Team 3 will give an update on the storm and evacuations this Tuesday, January 10, at 2 p.m. Live-stream the press conference on YouTube at youtu.be/8IpwcVkp0H4.