Future floods will be in mind as California town rebuilds

By Lifestyle and BudgetAssociated Press

After power and drinking water return, and cleanup crews haul away the last of the boulders and muck that splintered homes like a battering ram, the wealthy seaside hideaway of Montecito, California, will start rebuilding with the possibility of another catastrophic flood in mind.

Continue Reading Below

Though parts of the town of about 9,000 were spared, the debris flows leveled entire blocks as they killed at least 20 people last week. Sewer lines were ruptured, fire hydrants sheared off, power lines downed.

While an aggressive cleanup could mean Montecito will welcome visitors again in weeks, the rebuilding of infrastructure and hundreds of homes will be measured in months and years. It offers a chance to reimagine aspects of a town that has favored slow growth over the runaway development closer to Los Angeles, 90 miles (145 kilometers) down the coast.

Telephone and electrical lines could be moved from poles to underground conduits. A micro-grid for solar power would increase self-sufficiency.

Also looming are questions about how to protect the town against future disaster. Is it time to install culverts and storm drains to siphon floods like other Southern California cities have built? Or to require that properties capture storm water for future use rather than let it cascade to the Pacific Ocean?

"Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this to have an opportunity," said Sheldon Yellen, CEO of disaster recovery firm Belfor Property Restoration. "You can pretty well bet that they will all be looking at every way possible."

More ambitious proposals would run up against twin realities: Major infrastructure costs major money, and Montecito has traditionally favored a natural aesthetic to maintain its character. What's more, the flows roughly tracked creeks that cut from the mountains to the ocean, and those creeks are typically on private property.

Even in high-cost coastal California, the unincorporated community stands apart. A home is far more likely to sell for over $10 million than under $1 million. It sits on the "American Riviera," an area around Santa Barbara known for its Mediterranean climate and architecture reflecting its Spanish colonial past.

Montecito means "little mountain" in Spanish, and it was the foothills of the coastal range that crowd the town toward the ocean that gave way early last Tuesday. Recently burned by California's largest recorded wildfire, the hillside couldn't absorb a heavy rainstorm punctuated by an epic downpour of nearly an inch in just 15 minutes.

The resulting torrents of mud, boulders and uprooted trees deposited several brown veins at least 100 yards wide through leafy green neighborhoods. More than 60 homes were destroyed and more than 450 others damaged, Santa Barbara County officials said.

It was the worst disaster of its kind in the U.S. since 2014, when a hillside in Washington state gave way, killing 43 people. Debris removal took nearly six months near the community of Oso, an area far humbler than Montecito, where Hollywood celebrities live, play and get married.

The tremendous volume of debris covering houses outside Oso meant many buried properties were never cleared. Instead, crews contoured the new mounds to encourage natural drainage to a river below, then seeded the earth with ground cover to limit erosion.

The stabilization process took about three months and cost around $8 million, said Matt Zybas, solid waste director in Snohomish County.

While residents in Montecito, with 3,200 households, have the capital to rebuild, few will do it with the help of flood insurance.

Just 58 buildings have coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program, according to Edith Lohmann, an insurance specialist with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Though the number of Montecito homes insured outside the government program was unavailable, it is the dominant source of flood coverage nationally.

Critics also complain the town is typically slow to permit new construction.

"We're going to make it a lot easier than normal to rebuild," said Das Williams, the Santa Barbara County supervisor whose district includes Montecito.

Because the small commercial center of cafes and boutiques was not devastated, Williams hopes tourists will be able to return within weeks.

In rebuilding, the town will have to wrestle with how much of a down payment it is willing to make against future disasters. Discussion about new infrastructure often focuses on "shovel ready" projects.

"Mother Nature for better or worse has already done the shovel aspect in much of our community," said Charles Newman, vice chairman of the Montecito Planning Commission.

Still, there may be a limited appetite to require that homeowners install devices to catch water, especially when balanced against the need to return to normalcy.

"Requiring it might be an obstacle at this time, psychologically and otherwise," Newman said.

Local government could explore a new storm drainage network. Montecito has relied mainly on its creeks for drainage, said Tom Fayram, deputy public works director in Santa Barbara County.

And then there are the huge scars on the hillside, which could be stabilized by reusing the boulders that tumbled through town.

But even with improvement, catastrophic mudslides still would overwhelm the town, Fayram said.

"I would say it is impossible to create any drainage system to address the event that happened last Tuesday," he said. "In places I stood, the debris flow was 15 feet over your head. It was not water. It was a slurry, with rocks that are over your head and trees. This is not a drainage system issue. This is a debris flow of the likes we have never seen."


Michael Balsamo contributed from Santa Barbara, California. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Contact Pritchard at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman and Weber at https://twitter.com/webercm .