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  • By Melinda Burns

FEMA Tunes Out Ire over Montecito Flood Map

As most of the South Coast braces for the next fire, Montecito is focused on the next flood.

An advisory flood map released in June by the Federal Emergency Management Agency easily doubles the area of Montecito that is likely to flood during a 100-year storm.

The new flood plain, or “high hazard area,” now covers roughly half the community, and it predicts higher flood water elevations than in the past.

The new "recovery map," as it is called, is designed to help property owners rebuild more safely in the wake of the Jan. 9 debris flow: about 300 damaged or destroyed structures await repair or reconstruction. Many residents who were unaffected by the disaster, however, believe the map must be wrong.

Robert Rothenberg of 2900 Torito Road is one of them. He can’t figure out why his house, untouched by the debris flow, is depicted within the flood plain.

“They arbitrarily did that to us,” he said. “Our property value may go down. It may be harder to sell our property. But none of the 32 homes in our association, except one next to Toro Creek, was affected by the debris flow.”

On Wednesday at 9 a.m. (July 18), in the County Administration Building, the Montecito Planning Commission and Montecito Board of Architectural Review will hold a joint workshop to field residents’ questions and concerns about the recovery map.

A big flood plain. FEMA officials say they will adjust the map to correct technical errors, but do not expect to make significant changes.

The map depicts the likely scenario for a debris-laden flood in the wake of the Thomas Fire of December during extreme rainfall events – 15 inches in 24 hours in the mountains, or eight inches on the coast. It is not a debris flow map.

Under the FEMA model, bridges and culverts are clogged and creeks overflow across the landscape in a 100-year storm. That’s a storm with a one percent chance of occurring yearly or a 26 percent chance of occurring during a 30-year mortgage.

“We feel confident in the mapping that’s been produced,” Eric Simmons, a senior engineer at FEMA’s Oakland headquarters, told an audience at the Montecito Union School on July 11. “It models the burned watershed, which has the ability to produce peak discharges and flow rates much higher than a non-burned watershed.

“Flood maps change all the time. People don’t want to see the change, but it’s important to be able to communicate the risk.”

A quickly-drawn map. In the long term, the FEMA recovery map is interim in nature; a final Flood Insurance Rate Map will be completed by the agency in three to five years.

In the meantime, officials say, flood insurance rates in Montecito will be based on the old maps.

The recovery map, however, will be used to determine the safe elevation of new buildings.

Under county ordinances, the first floor of new homes must be built at least two feet above base flood water elevations. There are no building standards for debris flows.

“Because the maps were approved so quickly, we didn’t really have an opportunity to hear the community voice its concerns,” said Tom Bollay, a Montecito architect who was appointed last week by the Montecito Association, a homeowner group, to serve as a map liaison between residents and county Flood Control.

Bollay’s home in Riven Rock appears in the new flood plain; on the old map, it was outside the high hazard area. Similarly, Charity Walton-Masters, whose adjacent homes at 2231 and 2233 Camino del Rosario survived the debris flow intact, wonders why one appears in the new flood plain and the other doesn’t.

“Here we are in a high danger zone where we didn’t literally have any mud on our street” in the debris flow, Walton-Masters said.

Randall Road on San Ysidro Creek is sometimes mentioned by FEMA’s critics as a “mind-boggling” error on the new map: six of seven homes were destroyed and two people died there, yet the map predicts flood water elevations of less than six inches of water on those properties during a 100-year storm.

County officials have noted that the topography on Randall is now higher in elevation because the debris flow on San Ysidro Creek left behind a massive deposit of mud and rocks there on Jan. 9, and because the creek itself was scoured deeper during the debris flow.

Alluvial fans and LIDAR. The FEMA recovery map is now the county’s best flood map, said Tom Fayram, director of county Flood Control.

For one thing, he said, FEMA based its calculations on aerial LIDAR data, or remote sensing imagery, a 21st-century technology that recorded the elevations of Montecito’s changed topography, post-Jan. 9.

Also, Fayram said, the agency assumed that floodwaters would be full of mud and debris in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, so the recovery map more accurately reflects what’s likely to happen in big storms.

Fayram said it’s not easy to predict where water will travel on Montecito’s alluvial fan – the deposits of mud and rocks that flow down from mountain streams over thousands of years. The community is built on alluvial fans, and the debris flow of Jan. 9 showed just how catastrophic these deposits of mud and rocks can be.

“There are places where San Ysidro Creek breaks out and wants to go to Oak Creek, and Hot Springs Creek wants to go to Cold Springs,” Fayram said. “This map comes the closest I’ve ever seen, because it allows the water to spread out.

“Yes, we’re depicting something that’s much worse than the existing map. It’s a destabilizing thought. But I think we got it as right as we could. Remember, 23 people died here. That is something that we should be cognizant of.”

County officials say the old flood map for Montecito was grossly inaccurate in some places; in the neighborhood of Montecito Oaks, for example, it depicted base flood water elevations below the level of the ground.

"Crazy-making" changes. On Wednesday, representatives of the Montecito Association will ask the commission and architectural board to look into a potential recovery map glitch for property owners who wish to rebuild after the Jan. 9 disaster:

What if they want to elevate or move their new homes, yet their properties do not appear in high hazard areas on the new map? Would they still qualify to rebuild under the county’s new “like-for-like” ordinance, which waives zoning permits and design review?

“We want to be able to provide this input, ask questions and give direction to staff,” said Cori Hayman, an association board member. Hayman said that in recent weeks, she has received two dozen calls about the recovery map from worried residents.

“They feel strongly it is inaccurate,” she said.

Finally, at the FEMA meeting at Montecito Union last week, Karen Feeney, an employee of Allen Construction, said it was “a little crazy-making” for residents trying to rebuild because in just five years, the recovery map will be replaced by another FEMA map, the final Flood Insurance Rate Map.

So, in five years, will the flood plain in Montecito likely be smaller on that map, based on vegetation regrowth in the Thomas Burn area and less runoff in big storms? Feeney asked.

Yes, but not much smaller, Simmons said.

“The FIRM map would reflect existing conditions,” he said. “The hazard in most areas would not be as extreme as what the recovery map shows.”

Nevertheless, FEMA officials urged Montecitans to take out flood insurance starting now, even if they are in a low-hazard area. Despite his concerns, homeowner Rothenberg, for one, has done so. because he “didn’t know what was going to happen in the future.”

FEMA engineer Simmons, noted that the wet season is coming soon.

“The next event won’t read our map,” he said.

Melinda Burns is an environmental reporter based in Santa Barbara.

Images: Scenes of destruction from Montecito debris flow (Mike Eliason SB County Fire Department).

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified homeowner Robert Rothenberg as Robert Boghosian. Apologies.

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