Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

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Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse
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FEMA is drawing up an interim recovery map of local watersheds to help guide development over the next few years in Montecito and Carpinteria. This is a view of Montecito the day after the deadly Jan. 9 debris flow. (Photo: Matt Udkow / SBCFD)

FEMA will define new “hazard zones” and 100-year flood elevations

By Melinda Burns

Last week, the owners of a one-story home on Santa Elena Lane sought preliminary approval from the Montecito Board of Architectural Review for an 800-square-foot addition and a new wall in the front yard to deflect floodwaters from Montecito Creek.

The Jan. 9 debris flow carried mud right up to the house but not inside it. The property was green-tagged; county inspectors did not find any structural damage. But on Thursday, planners put the proposed addition on hold until FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, draws up a “recovery map” for Montecito.

Thiep Cung, the board vice-chair, objected to the delay and said he was tired of looking at piles of mud all over the place.

“It’s refreshing to see a project come in and not waste any time getting back to the new normal,” he said. “I don’t want this process to drag out for three months.”

If Cung is frustrated, so are the owners of 350 homes that were destroyed or badly damaged on Jan. 9. They have been advised by the county not to spend money on their rebuilding plans until FEMA finishes its work.

“We’re asking people to hold off,” said Petra Leyva, a county supervising planner – but if they want to move forward right away, she added, they can request a meeting with county officials.

During the Jan. 9 debris flow, a number of creeks in Montecito filled up, jumped their banks and forged new paths. This is a view of Cold Springs Creek and the destroyed crossing at Mountain Drive, one week after the disaster. (Photo: Mike Eliason / SBCFD)

Unrecognizable landscape

During the Jan. 9 deluge, with terrible ferocity, the debris flow widened the creeks in Montecito, filled them up in places, jumped their banks, obliterated whole neighborhoods and dramatically altered the topography of huge swaths of the community. In some locations, deposits of mud and rocks have raised the contours of the land by 20 feet. The debris flow footprint is much wider than the floodplains delineated on county maps.

“Those who survived this disaster are at high risk for another event,” said Eric Simmons, a senior FEMA engineer who is leading the remapping effort with a team of hydrologists, engineers and digital mappers at the agency’s regional offices in Oakland. “That’s why we’re working together and encouraging new development to be safe.”

The team will look at watersheds affected by the Thomas Fire from Montecito Creek to the Ventura County line, including in the Carpinteria Valley, Simmons said. The work began two weeks ago and will take three or four months, he said. The study is based on LIDAR data – remote sensing imagery that was collected by air shortly after Jan. 9, using light from a laser to survey the ground.

The recovery map is designed to help guide new development in the aftermath of the Jan. 9 debris flow, Simmons said. It will delineate the boundaries of “hazard zones” in Montecito and Carpinteria, he said, based on the amount of floodwater that is expected to come down local streams and valleys during a 100-year rainfall. The new zones will take into account floodwater that may be laden with mud in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, Simmons said.


Within the hazard zones, he said, FEMA will show the elevations of floodwaters, marking how high the water is expected to rise during a 100-year rainfall. There is a one-percent chance of a 100-year rainfall occurring in any given year. For purposes of the study, FEMA has defined a 100-year rainfall as 15.3 inches of rain within 24  hours in  the mountains above Montecito and Carpinteria or 7.8 inches within 24 hours on the coast. 

The new hazard zones will likely be larger than the floodplains designated on existing county maps, Simmons said. And, he said, they may include areas of potential flooding and debris flows that were unscathed on Jan. 9. LIDAR technology has revealed the existence of several long-abandoned prehistoric channels in Montecito – low-lying areas, now heavily residential, that could be “reoccupied” by future debris flows. 

“We will model where the hazard goes,” Simmons said. “If it jumps out of the bank and goes into lower-lying areas, that’s what the new map will show.”

The recovery map will be an interim map, Simmons said. It will take FEMA four or five years to draw up the more comprehensive Flood Insurance Rate Maps that the county uses for long-term floodplain management, he said.

FEMA has not decided whether to map the creek banks and channels in Montecito and Carpinteria as part of its recovery map, Simmons said. The county currently requires property owners to survey their own properties and locate the top of any nearby creek bank when they apply to rebuild.

County ordinances currently do not allow building within 50 feet of the top of a creek bank. They also require that the first floor of homes near creeks be at least two feet above the baseline floodwater elevation. Those setbacks and height minimums will not likely change, said Jon Frye, county Flood Control engineering manager.

At the same time, in order to promote safety and resiliency – the new watchwords for Montecito – county planners are revising the ordinance that regulates “like-for-like” rebuilding of the same house in the same footprint. They want to give owners more flexibility in case of debris flows, recognizing that the creek beds in Montecito have changed and so has the topography of the land. “Like-for-like” rebuilding is generally exempt from planning permits and architectural review. The new ordinance is expected to go to the county Board of Supervisors for a vote in April.

“It’s all about making prudent decisions,” Frye said.

Buried property lines

Many properties in Montecito were altered beyond recognition on Jan. 9. To help private surveyors re-establish vanished property boundaries, the county in April will start creating a grid of 70 survey markers in Montecito, a “control network” that private surveyors can tie into, Aleksandar Jevremovic, the county surveyor, said.  

“They will be pipes or brass disks in concrete,” he said. “We are setting them in convenient areas. They will be very accurately defined.”

At the same time, Jevremovic said, the county is seeking $750,000 in FEMA funds to re-survey the location and width of the county right-of-way in Montecito, chiefly roads, ditches, and shoulders where public utilities are located. Many survey markers on the roads were destroyed by the debris flow or during cleanup operations, he said.

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

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a-1586359289 Mar 31, 2018 09:55 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Thiep Cung, the board vice-chair, objected to the delay and said he was tired of looking at piles of mud all over the place. “It’s refreshing to see a project come in and not waste any time getting back to the new normal,” he said. “I don’t want this process to drag out for three months.” ===================== I can almost imagine the frustration, but the attitude of the vice-chair SHOCKED me. It's bad planning, wasteful, short-term thinking, and if there's another debris flow in the next few years, this has to be done all over again by and for whomever is affected. I found this extremely poor reasoning for a public official.

Channelfog Mar 29, 2018 02:27 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

A number of years past, we built a very large house on the Rivenrock empty site where once stood the house of the psychiatrist of Stanley McCormick. The geologist informed us that we would encounter little rock during excavation. Unfortunately they had taken their samples in the only fill that existed on the propety and when we undertook excavation we found the land to be at least 70% rock. Asside from a 5000 sq ft basement, there were hundreds of yards of french drain specified by the engineers that were 14 feet deep and 4 feet wide. Aside from creating a pile of stone that was the size of a football field and 8-10 feet deep. We had the largest of excavating equipment hammering through large boulders that were as big as vans or buses to create these deep trenches. The recent events crystalized in my mind how that geology was formed, and made me aware of the "grandeur" of what created the ground on which Montecito now lies. When one steps back for a moment, and looks at the steepness of the fault caused ridges behind SB, that abut the Pacific, one begins to appreciate the dynamic involved. In geologic terms, SB is very young: the mesa, Santa Barbara Formations is only 100,000 years old and La Conchita is only 10,000 years old (new born, slap it on the back!) It is all too easy to sit at piere la fonde sipping latte and forget all these geologic realities. It is something I have often done. This geology is active and has not finished forming itself.

SBRocks Mar 29, 2018 01:32 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

I won't be surprised if the top of bank set back will increase. I would also think that each property will have to be approved separately, based on that set back and elevation.

Robert247 Mar 29, 2018 09:22 AM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Local builder here too. There are many challenges to work through. One simply cannot just build a home right back where there is now a creek regardless of if their land used to be there or not. You cannot push dirt into the new creek to rebuild up your land. For many your investment is lost at sea. You will be compensated by your insurance for the value of improvements up to the extent you had them insured. The land, not so much. Forget about getting your extended replacement though for those not be able to rebuild. So who is going to put their necks on the line to allow multi million dollar homes to be built right back where they just got destroyed? The county? I wouldn't bet on it. That's why they are saying to hold off on paying for rebuild plans. You might be throwing $50K away if you have already engaged. Patience here will save you big time in the long run. Just like anything don't be in such a rush to move forward. Especially now with unchartered waters having to be navigated. Same for picking a contractor. Don't get scammed by out of town or unlicensed people like back during the Tea fire rebuild. Take your time and check them out.

Flicka Mar 29, 2018 09:10 AM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

I've heard from people who have seen Randall Road, above East Valley Road (192) that not only are the houses gone but also the property. Sad reality for owners of property or homes by creeks as it could happen to them.

Potif Mar 29, 2018 07:36 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

10:12 AM -- I suspect that many of the 'properties' that previously had houses on them are now considered to be in creek beds, or so close that they are now unable to be built upon. You may 'own' the area that the surveyed boundaries show, but it can no longer be built on because it is now a creek. That would basically mean to me that the property is 'gone' for all intents and purposes. :(

CivilEngineer Mar 29, 2018 01:15 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Like Robert247 said, if the creek scoured away the high ground that your house was on, you now own creekside property that is in the 100-yr floodplain and or floodway. You cannot build in a floodway, and you have to elevate your house above the 100-yr flood water surface elevation + 1 ft to build in a floodplain. And you have to prove that the fill you place to elevate the house will not raise water surface elevations by more than 1 ft upstream and downstream from the house. All the studies required to prove this, plus the fill placement, is very expensive. Only the wealthiest people will be able to proceed with reconstructing their house if they are in this situation. Other people might have to take the FEMA and insurance and lawsuit payouts and buy elsewhere.

CivilEngineer Mar 29, 2018 08:29 AM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Nowadays they are trying to use the term AEP -Annual Exceedence Probability. So the 100-yr storm is the storm that has a 1% chance of being equalled or exceeded in a year. Just because we had this event last year, doesn't mean the chances are any less of having it again next year. And the way the statistics work out, there is a 40% chance that the 100-yr event will be equalled or exceeded multiple times in a 50-yr period which is the normal design life for bridges and channel improvements. ........ The methods used to try and figure out how much sediment should be included with the water flow (bulking) are very inexact and depend on the assumptions you use. If they conclude that a lot of sediment will come down, and that the flow can break out in the alluvial fans, a lot of people will be affected and have to pay a lot in flood insurance going forward or be prevented from building. This could change the way that Montecito looks going forward.

Channelfog Mar 29, 2018 01:47 PM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Civilengineer: You bring up very important points and I appreciate that you share your expertise on the subject. Thank you.

Channelfog Mar 29, 2018 08:25 AM
Remapping Montecito, Post-Apocalypse

Having been a builder in Montecito for 40 years I am stunned by the challenges this situation has created. When the topography changes this radically, and is likely to do so again in the near future, redesigning homes and community becomes particularly difficult and painful. I understand why the County is not simply allowing "like for like" reconstruction in these areas. I appreciate that people "do not want to wait three months", but the entire equation has been so drastically changed that three months is probably over optimistic.

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