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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 12th, 2023, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 23, Issue 46 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 23, Issue 46

'Atmospheric river' dumps historic rain levels throughout Santa Barbara County

By TAYLOR O'CONNOR

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department responded to more than 400 calls related to service, with more than 100 of them involving rescues from Jan. 9 to 9 a.m. on Jan. 10, Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told the Board of Supervisors during its Jan. 10 meeting. 

“There are no injuries or anyone missing reported. Our teams are out again, broken down from north to south and continue working with a focus on damage, mostly infrastructure,” Hartwig said. “We’re really trying to get people back into their homes, evacuate as few people as we need to keep them out of their homes for the least amount of time needed, and that’s a principle we will continue.” 


FLOOD DAMAGE
Parts of Orcutt, including on the corner of Woodmere Road and Valley Drive, experienced significant flooding and damage to roadways. Visit readysbc.org for more the latest information and updates on your area.
PHOTO BY CALEB WISEBLOOD

Santa Barbara County received historic rainfall on Jan. 9 with more than 12 inches of rain in a 24-hour period across the county, with rates hitting 2.5 to 3 inches of rain in three hours, causing significant flash flood warnings and evacuation orders to echo throughout the county. Although a few dry days are expected from Jan. 11 to 12, the rain is predicted to continue on Jan. 13 to 16, according to the National Weather Service.

Sheriff Bill Brown told the supervisors in an update that communities across the county saw significant impacts with a sinkhole in Orcutt on Union Valley Parkway and Bradley behind Hibiscus Court; several debris flows and rockfalls, causing highways 101, 154, 33, 246, and 196 to close down both northbound and southbound routes; and school districts across the county canceling school on Jan. 10. 

“We are continuing to work with the Fire Protection Agency to assess damage by the storm, but we are pleased to report although we had major property damage, we had no fatalities or major injuries,” Brown said. “We know that evacuations are tremendously inconvenient and we do not make that decision lightly, but we want to keep everyone safe.” 

Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson commended first responders for their preparation of the storm’s aftermath, but added that he felt some North County communities were “significantly undermined.” 

“My question for the sheriff is why our riverbeds, the Santa Ynez River in Lompoc Valley and the Santa Maria River, weren’t included in the evacuation areas? It seems that those people are the most vulnerable people in our county, they actually live in a watercourse, and they should have been included and evacuated,” Nelson said. 

Brown responded by saying that law enforcement reached out to Lompoc and Santa Maria Police Departments to work with homeless populations occupying the riverbeds, and that officers were accompanied by advocates to warn them and connect them to resources. Later, law enforcement flew by helicopter over both riverbeds and saw that the majority of the population had “self-evacuated.” 

“It was impossible for them to stay because the water was actually flowing; there were some still under the bridges. They were notified, but chose not to leave,” Brown said. “The information was given to them, but we don’t typically evacuate areas that are not habitable areas; we typically evacuate communities.” 

Nelson responded by saying there “obviously” were people living in this area as a woman gave birth in the Santa Ynez Riverbed while water was actively flowing. The Lompoc Fire Department rescued the mother, father, and child from the river and took them to the hospital, but Nelson said he was disappointed in the allocation of resources between the county’s north/south boundaries. 

As of Jan. 10, North County evacuation centers were closed because they didn’t receive any members of the public, while South County locations remained open. North County residents who need access to shelter should call (833) 688-5551, and the county can reopen facilities. 

A silver lining through all of the damage was that the Cachuma Lake Reservoir was reaching capacity for the first time in recent history, County Water Agency Manager Matt Young told the Sun on Jan 10. 

“It’s at 72 percent capacity right now—we’re finding as we go and send emails out on updates, it’s wrong; it’s rising so rapidly. It’s come up roughly 34 feet in the last day. The elevation right now is at 734 feet and it tops out at 753 feet,” Young said. “Things are looking good for the water supply, and we’re expecting it to fill completely by this week.” 

The water agency is expecting to conduct a downstream release for the first time since 2011 to avoid flood damage and preserve as much water as possible, he said. However, the drenching didn’t pull the county—or the state—out of its prolonged drought.

“It’s certainly an extremely significant benefit to our water supply, but we’ve had many years of drought and it takes more than one year of rain for our groundwater basins to recover,” Young said. “Our basins are still depleted; this certainly helped, but we would need many years of significant rainfall to replenish them significantly.”










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