Destruction from January's storm in Santa Barbara | Credit: Sharon Byrne

Late Tuesday, President Joe Biden added Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties to the list of three California counties for which he has issued a Major Disaster Declaration. This declaration, which also adds Monterey County, is of critical help not just for local governments and tribal authorities in making their disaster reimbursement claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but for individual homeowners and business owners as well. For communities that have been bombarded by last week’s lashing rains, floods, mudslides, and debris flows, this declaration qualifies as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Congressmembers Salud Carbajal — who represents all of Santa Barbara and S.L.O counties — and Jimmy Panetta of Monterey County have been working behind the scenes and in public lobbying President Biden and FEMA Regional Director Robert Fenton to get this declaration issued. Biden’s decision to make the Major Disaster Declaration for Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey counties now brings the total number of state counties to six. Earlier this week, Biden had issued such a declaration for Sacramento, Merced, and Santa Cruz counties. Biden, not coincidentally, will be arriving somewhere in the Central Coast sometime this Thursday.

Carbajal spent early Tuesday morning bending the ear of FEMA Regional Director Fenton before embarking on an assessment tour of northern Santa Barbara County and southern San Luis Obispo County. In Santa Barbara, he wrote to Biden, 500,000 cubic yards of debris needs to be excavated from the county’s six debris basins. In Los Osos in S.L.O. County, one person has been confirmed dead and a 5-year-old boy was swept away by the raging waters; 12 homes there have been all but destroyed, “flooded by mud,” Carbajal said. The road into Avila Beach, home to the Avila Beach nuclear power reactors, has been rendered impassable.

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Carbajal reminded Biden that Santa Barbara has experienced “multiple fires including the Thomas and Alisal fires, making the region susceptible to potential debris flows and severe flooding.” And to belabor what’s been made obvious to all Santa Barbara residents, Carbajal wrote in a letter dated January 9, “Five years ago, to this day, the Montecito community experienced a catastrophic debris flow that took the lives of 23 individuals.”

In two letters, Carbajal and Panetta took pains to praise Biden for the steps he’d taken to help thus far. “However, more help is needed,” they wrote. “A major disaster declaration would provide relief, like housing assistance, disaster unemployment assistance, and crisis counseling to individuals impacted by these storms.” 

Carbajal’s press liaison, Ian Mariani, stated that Carbajal’s office will be conducting a sustained outreach effort notifying eligible applicants that FEMSA aid is available and helping them to apply. Mariani said details on reimbursement formulas would come later, but for right now, his advice was “Just apply. Apply now.”

For the time being, Mariani said the best portal to FEMA was For those more inclined to pick up the phone, the contact number is 1 (800) 621-3362.

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