North County representatives and residents reflect on Santa Barbara County's storm response

Melony Edwards woke up on Jan. 10 to large sections of Colson Canyon Road just gone, leaving her and her neighbors stranded. 

When a historic storm hit Santa Barbara County on Monday, Jan. 9—bringing more than 12 inches of rain in 24 hours to some areas—the creek on Colson Canyon Road overflowed and the water washed away swaths of the road, Edwards told the Sun via email.

click to enlarge North County representatives and residents reflect on Santa Barbara County's storm response
DAMAGE DONE : The Jan. 9 atmospheric river that hit Santa Barbara County left Tepusquet and Colson Canyon residents stranded as flood water deteriorated Colson Canyon Road.

“Many of our neighbors on Tepusquet Road were in the same boat with roads washed out, driveways blocked with slides, debris, and/or downed trees,” Edwards wrote. “Tepusquet community members Mary Andrade and Renee O’Neill emailed county Supervisor Bob Nelson Tuesday inform him of the destruction and the concern for community members who have young children, who are older, who have illness, and who have no way to get out if needed or emergency services to get to them either.” 

The next day, Jan. 11, Nelson and Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig surveyed the damage in Tepusquet and Colson, and 30 minutes later, county heavy equipment operators arrived and worked on the road to make it accessible by ATVs, she said. The Fire Department worked from Jan. 11 through 13. 

“Colson Canyon Road is still not drivable. It is a mess. But, due to the hard work of Santa Barbara County Fire, as well as many of our wonderful community members, everybody can now walk out and/or get out by ATV to Tepusquet Road,” Edwards said. “Everybody in our community also now knows that Santa Barbara County Fire can and will get to them one way or another if there is an emergency.”

As of Jan. 13, Colson Canyon Road residents are waiting for the U.S. Forest Service to come out, assess, and eventually fix the road, since it’s a public access road and the Forest Service’s responsibility to maintain, she said. 

“We really need this process to begin and happen as quickly as possible,” Edwards said. 

Residents across the county felt the storm’s impact with significant road closures, debris flows, a sinkhole in Orcutt, and school closures in every district. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department received more than 400 calls for service, with 100 of them involving rescues, but there were no reports of fatalities or injuries as of Jan. 11. 

Fourth District Supervisor Nelson expressed frustration during the Jan. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting regarding the allocation of resources between North County and the South Coast—with more focus going toward South County when North County still needed assistance.

“To me, I don’t doubt there was reason for concern in the South Coast, but if you watched the press conferences you wouldn’t even know the North County existed,” Nelson told the Sun on Jan. 11.

Specifically, Nelson wanted to see more attention geared toward evacuating individuals experiencing homelessness in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria riverbeds. On Jan. 9, a woman gave birth while the 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 more should have been done. 

“We’re going door-to-door in Montecito with deputies, search and rescue, but very little presence in Lompoc or Santa Maria,” he said. “We talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but if we want to do those things, then our actions should reflect that. We shouldn’t focus the majority of our resources on the most affluent. This is what the county government does, we’ve been diverting resources to the South Coast for generations.” 

Although 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he could see where his fellow North County supervisor was coming from, he understood the county’s reasons for allocating resources to South County due to past experience with extreme debris flows. Lavagnino said he was pleased with the county’s response to the storms.

“Anything I’ve asked for at this point has been a yes,” he said. “People are inconvenienced and displaced, but looking at the big picture, we had no fatalities. We have to realize the scale and magnitude of what happened.”

There were places in the county that received more than 20 inches of rain, Cachuma Lake doubled in size in one day, and the Gibraltar and Jameson reservoirs are all over capacity after the rainfall, he said. 

“That’s just biblical proportions. You can’t engineer everything to withstand a once-in-a-100-year type of event. There’s things we’re going to learn from this, there’s always a chance to look back,” Lavagnino said. “I’ve had nothing but a positive response, and I guess Bob’s got his things he’s concerned about in Orcutt that had significant damage and I know he’s doing the best to deal with that, but I haven’t run into that as far as resources [being] limited to me.”

Good Samaritan Lompoc Director of Services Brian Halterman said he had a positive experience with the emergency response in the Lompoc community. Good Sam’s outreach teams went into encampments to provide information, the county opened up its warming centers, and shelters prepared for more people. County officials and the housing department checked in constantly, and local first responders showed great attention to the community. 

“It was a great example of what collaboration looks like, what a community looks like when everything pulls together,” Halterman said. “It was a stressful and most nerve-wracking moment of my life, but it was a great experience seeing that care from all angles.” 

Good Sam’s 20 Pallet shelters in Lompoc are full, and the organization had 70 to 80 people at its other locations with six new people showing up in the rain, Halterman said. Good Sam is also prepared to take in the woman who gave birth in the riverbed if necessary, and he added the outreach teams have been working with her for quite some time. 

Although Halterman had a positive experience with resource allocation, he understood Nelson’s concerns and frustrations. 

“I know the experience from our outreach workers and staff in Santa Maria was entirely different from mine. I know they did not feel the river bottom in Santa Maria was addressed,” he said. “I don’t think there was an equal distribution of resources, I don’t think there was the same attention, but I don’t know the details. I’m not a politician, but I do know the frustration of our case workers in North County.” 

Good Samaritan employees at the Santa Maria shelter couldn’t be reached before the Sun’s deadline for comment. Halterman added that tense situations like severe storms tend to show the flaws in the system. 

“Those little weaknesses show in these moments and we have to learn what to do better next time. What can we do better and how can we do better, and I think that was some of Supervisor Nelson’s frustration,” he said. “We’re trying our best that we know how at that moment in time. When we communicate and are all on the same page, we achieve so much more—especially at these crisis moments.”

Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor can be reached at [email protected].

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