Lessons learned from emergency procedures that didn’t stack up to the power of the Jan. 9 storm, which sent rivers of mud, boulders and debris crashing through Montecito, have led to new procedures for evacuations and road closures.
Santa Barbara County officials on Thursday announced the release of a new interactive risk map and new evacuation notices are now divided into three categories that will no longer use the term “voluntary.”
While the timelines for each action may change, depending upon the type of disaster anticipated, the evacuation notices and procedures will remain the same.
Officials also urged residents living near the burn areas of the Alamo, Sherpa, Whittier and Thomas fires to prepare individual and family evacuation plans in case another potent storm strikes with the potential for deadly mud and debris flows.
Prior to what officials are now referring to as the 9/1 Debris Flow, the county issued both mandatory evacuation orders and voluntary evacuation warnings.
Some residents paid more attention to the word “voluntary” than to “evacuation” and assumed there was an element of safety.
Emergency officials were also caught off guard by the power of the storm.
“The storm that we predicted and the storm that we prepared for was not the storm that we received,” County Sheriff Bill Brown said. “It was much greater intensity.”
Brown said there are now three specific evacuation categories: a pre-evacuation advisory, a recommended evacuation warning and a mandatory evacuation order.
A pre-evacuation advisory will warn residents of a “possible risk” from an approaching storm — or other impending natural disaster — and advise them to begin preparations for evacuating.
A recommended evacuation warning will indicate a “high risk” to life and property, and residents should begin evacuating, especially those with special transportation needs or who have large animals, Brown said.
“Don’t wait for a knock on your door from a sheriff's deputy or member of Search and Rescue,” he said.
A mandatory evacuation order will indicate danger exists, with an “extreme risk” to live and property, and residents will be ordered to leave immediately.
“Discretion is not an option,” Brown said, adding that residents will not be forcibly removed but should not expect emergency assistance after the storm or other disaster strikes.
“Even if you do not live near a watercourse, you may still be in a high-risk area,” Brown said, noting residents could lose electric, phone and natural gas service and could be trapped for up to 15 days or require emergency rescue.
A timeline for issuing such emergency alerts was laid out for the Montecito area, because the mountains and canyons are still loaded with rock, sediment and debris that can wash down, re-creating the Jan. 9 disaster conditions.
“It will now take less rain to move debris than it did on 1/9,” Brown said.
But he noted that the timeline laid out for potential debris flows in Montecito would not be the same for a wildfire or other natural disaster.
Kevin Taylor, division chief of operations for the Montecito Fire Department and an incident commander during the Jan. 9 storm, said a rainfall level of half an inch an hour was chosen for issuing evacuation notices because that amount can cause debris flows similar to that disaster, when the rate of rainfall was much higher.
Taylor said the National Weather Service will typically issue an alert 72 hours prior to a major storm, and that’s when the pre-evacuation alert would be issued and emergency responders would meet to review the forecast.
If there is no change in the forecast 48 hours to the predicted arrival of the storm, a recommended evacuation warning would be issued.
With no change in the forecast 24 hours prior to the storm’s arrival, mandatory evacuation orders would be given and emergency responders would begin arriving from other areas.
Then, 12 hours before the storm hits, the mandatory evacuation order would be fully in effect, meaning no one should be in the evacuated zone and emergency responders would begin staging at critical points.
Two hours before the storm hits, roads would be closed.
Capt. Cindy Pontes, of the California Highway Patrol, said when a pre-evacuation advisory is issued for Montecito, the CHP and Caltrans will coordinate the positioning of resources to close Highway 101.
Then, two hours before the storm’s arrival, the highway will be closed at the Milpas Street ramps on the north and Highway 150 on the south, along with all the on- and off-ramps in between.
Rob Lewin, director of the County Office of Emergency Management, advised residents to visit the new risk map at www.readysbc.org and find out their risk level.
Areas marked in red are “extreme risk” areas, while those marked in yellow and gray are “high-risk” areas.
He also said all county residents should sign up for emergency alerts at awareandprepare.org.
“If we can’t get ahold of you, we can’t warn you,” Brown added, urging those who hear about the new evacuation procedures to pass them along to others. “Some people, believe it or not, do not have phones or computers or read the newspapers.”
In the Jan. 9 storm, the Verizon cell tower was damaged and the Wireless Emergency Alerts didn’t reach everyone.
First District Supervisor and Board of Supervisors Chairman Das Williams had advice in response to that: “Get a proper landline.”