North County hotels offer discounts to emotionally and financially drained South County evacuees

You don’t really know what it’s like to have to leave your home during a mandatory evacuation until you’ve experienced it yourself, according to Barry Prescott, general manager of Solvang’s well-known hotel, The Landsby.
As a resident of the Santa Barbara area, Prescott was forced to evacuate during the Thomas Fire in December 2017. At what felt like a moment’s notice, Prescott said he had to pack up his most valuable belongings, gather himself and his pets into his car, and drive away.
He didn’t know where he’d sleep that night, he didn’t know where to take his pets, and he didn’t know if his house would be there when he returned. It was more stressful than he ever thought it could be.
“As hotel employees you hear about it but you don’t understand what people go through until you have to evacuate yourself,” Prescott said. “And after that I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do things completely different.’”
He started offering discounts and waived fees to evacuees staying at The Landsby, a natural disaster special of sorts that a number of hotels in northern Santa Barbara County continue to offer to those repeatedly displaced by the threats of storms and fires.
In Santa Maria alone, the Holiday Inn, Best Western Plus Big America, the Radisson, and the Santa Maria Inn all offer discounts to evacuated residents of South County. Others in Lompoc and the Santa Ynez Valley do so as well.
Evacuating is stressful—and expensive—enough, and Prescott said people don’t need hotel owners jacking up prices and profiting off times of repeated distress.
At The Landsby, evacuees can stay for a discounted price of about $129 a night Sunday through Thursday, and $199 a night on Fridays and Saturdays. They can check out whenever they like without penalty, the parking fee is waved, as is the $75 pet fee.
Those discounts came in handy for some throughout the first weekend of February, when evacuations were ordered in the burn and debris flow areas of southern Santa Barbara County ahead of strong weekend rain storms.
Though The Landsby offered its usual discounted rates to evacuees, Prescott said he only had about five or six rooms go to displaced residents this time around. In past evacuations, nearly half of the hotel’s rooms were taken by evacuees at one time, he said.
Ryan Swack, general manager of the Santa Maria Inn, said his hotel also gives rooms to evacuees at discounted prices of about $89. That saves displaced residents about $20 during the week and up to $40 during the weekend.
The Santa Maria Inn started offering the evacuation discount to those impacted by the Thomas Fire and resulting mudslides, and Swack said people really seemed to appreciate the help. The discount, he said, has almost no noticeable impact on the hotel’s bottom line, so the Santa Maria Inn plans to continue its offering during all future mandatory evacuations.
Still, while Swack said dozens of South County residents took advantage of the inn’s lowered prices in late 2017 and throughout 2018, few evacuees made reservations at the Santa Maria Inn during the storm evacuations during the first weekend of February. And of those who did make reservations, he said, anywhere from 16 to 20 canceled on Saturday, Feb. 2, despite the evacuation not being lifted until the following morning.
Swack said he thought road closures could be to blame for the low turnout.
Parts of Highway 101 were closed off for short periods of time during the weekend storms, according to Joel Asmussen of the Buellton area California Highway Patrol. Highway 154 closed on Feb. 2 after overflowing water destroyed a portion of the road. It will be closed indefinitely.
There have been seven mandatory evacuations in the Santa Barbara and Montecito area since the Thomas Fire hit the area in late 2017, according to Suzanne Grimmesey of Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness. That’s if you count the Thomas Fire evacuations as one and the mudslides as another, and it’s not including the numerous evacuation advisories and warnings. Some of those mandatory evacuations lasted for days, she said, and others for weeks.
Evacuating is, of course, stressful, but it can also be incredibly expensive, according to Kate Wiebe, executive director of the Institute of Collective Trauma and Growth in Santa Barbara.
Many hotels don’t take pets, so Wiebe said evacuees often have to pay for places to keep their pets and a place to stay themselves. Most people like to stay as close to town as possible, because they want to be able to get to work or to bring their children to school, so it’s not always feasible to stay at the cheapest hotel. If they’re unable to get to the office and can’t work remotely, they lose hours and sometimes pay.
Depending on where they live and what kind of plan they have, Wiebe said insurance doesn’t always cover evacuation expenses.
She said county organizations are finding that residents are taking advantage of the hotel discounts, but some have to rely on churches and faith organizations that offer free shelter and friends and family with available space.
Many are also using Airbnb Open Homes, which Wiebe said is a program that the app enables during natural disasters and evacuation situations. It has nothing to do with the vacation rental program, she said, and allows any resident in the area to create an account and open their homes to evacuees free of charge. It’s a great program, but Wiebe said Airbnb hasn’t quite adapted its terms and conditions to the changing reality of places like Santa Barbara County, where evacuations happen frequently.
Residents haven’t really adapted to that either. People are tired, Wiebe said, emotionally and economically.
Many are so sick of the repetitive possibility of disaster that they’re leaving, Wiebe said. Some left after the mudslides, many moved out after the Holiday Fire in Goleta, and many who have lived in the area their whole lives are considering leaving for the first time.
“People are definitely fatigued,” Wiebe said, “and that manifests itself in a variety of ways.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected].

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