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For Montecito Debris-Flow Victims, Rebuilding Can Be a Painfully Long Process

The Chackel family is grappling with the question of whether to build a new home on Hot Springs Road

An empty lot on Hot Springs Road Click to view larger
An empty lot on Hot Springs Road awaits a decision by the Chackel family about whether to rebuild their home that was destroyed in the Jan. 9 debris flows. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Julie Chackel Stevens’ parents were asleep on the early morning of Jan. 9, 2018.

Reno and Joan Chackel had owned their home at 361 Hot Springs Road for more than 20 years, and it was their quiet place of retirement.

Joan loved the garden and spent hours and hours tending to her pristine yard.

"The landscaping and garden was her life," Julie recalled. 

When Reno, 91, and Joan, 77, went to sleep that night, they knew that rain was in the forecast.

However, they were in the voluntary evacuation zone, and decided not to leave. It wasn't easy or simple for Reno, who had Alzheimer's disease the prior seven years and required a full-time caregiver, to evacuate.

They also had evacuation fatigue after leaving their home twice during the massive Thomas Fire that began in December. 

Julie Stevens, who lives in Idaho, was well aware of the situation. She had downloaded the county's emergency alert app on her phone, and was ready to help if needed. 

She went to sleep that night feeling hopeful. 

The walls of the Chackels’ home on Hot Springs Road vividly show how high mud from the Jan. 9 debris flows came in the house. Click to view larger
The walls of the Chackels’ home on Hot Springs Road vividly show how high mud from the Jan. 9 debris flows came in the house. (Contributed photo)

But the sound of alerts blowing up her cell phone woke her up early in the morning. She called the Montecito house and got no response. She couldn't get through to anyone. 

Eventually, she called a non-emergency line and informed authorities that she was concerned about her parents. About 30 minutes later, she got a call from a Montecito firefighter who said, "There is mud up to the roof and we can't find anyone inside."

Julie's first thought was that she had lost her parents.

"You couldn't even think," she said

About 10 minutes later, Julie got a phone call from a firefighter who was stationed at the All Saints by the Sea evacuation site. He uttered these unforgettable words: "They are at the shelter. Their names are on the list."

For Julie Chackel and her brother, Paul Chackel, the nightmare of the Montecito debris flow had only just begun.

They are among dozens of families that are struggling with how to move on after the devastating disaster.

The Chackels have spent about $150,000 since the debris flow on various permits just to be in a place where they can decide whether to start over.

Mud and debris fill the Chackels’ home on Hot Springs Road in Montecito after the Jan. 9 debris flows. The family is weighing whether to rebuild the home on Hot Springs Road that was destroyed. Click to view larger
Mud and debris fill the Chackels’ home on Hot Springs Road in Montecito after the Jan. 9 debris flows. The family is weighing whether to rebuild the home on Hot Springs Road that was destroyed. (Contributed photo)

Among their challenges were getting their auto insurance company to figure out a way to tow their car from the mounds of mud, and working with utilities to confirm shutoff of gas before beginning excavation and demolition.

"I understand the county is hurting and needs money, too, but maybe the demolition permit could have been waived," Julie said.

First District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams said he sympathizes with families such as the Chackels. 

"I want to help people rebuild and have made a streamlined permit process with no appeal rights if someone wants to rebuild a structure the same size," Williams said. "That should take it from the normal 3-4 years down to 18 months."

The Chackels are looking to rebuild and are working with their insurance company, Chubb, negotiating on an amount for reimbursement. They expect insurance to cover between $800,000 and $1 million to rebuild. 

Right now, Julie said, she is in a waiting mode, and the process has been full of costly and tedious delays. 

“Financially it makes sense to rebuild," Julie said.

Once the insurance company offers an amount, Julie and her brother will have to begin meeting with architects, contractors and others, and then get a real-time estimate of what a rebuild will cost. From there, it's a negotiation game. 

Today the lot is a flat piece of land. 

Julie said it was like throwing salt into the wound when she and the family had to spend $5,000 on mulch to cover the expansive property, to avoid dust from kicking up. 

She and her brother are not alone. 

Tess Harris, senior planner in Development Review, said the county has 45 like-for-like rebuilding permit applications from Montecito homeowners affected by the debris flow. The county has opened up disaster cases for 323 properties.

Of those, 33 cases have been closed either because a permit was issued or no work was needed on the property, and 290 remain open.

The county conducted safety assessments on every every property affected. Each property was given a red, yellow, or green placard to indicate degree of damage.

Of the structures that were posted with red placards (60 percent to 100 percent damage or completely destroyed), 40 structures were demolished and 30 of those were dwellings, Harris said.

Williams said most of the families that he has interacted with are struggling with their homeowner's insurance provider. 

Some Montectio families are waiting to see what the winter brings. If the rain causes more flooding, some people might choose not to rebuild at all. If there is no damage, they will then apply for rebuilidng permits. 

Julie it could take two to three years if the family makes a final decision to rebuild. 

Already, much time has been lost. 

Although they both survived, the trauma over the debris flow devastated Reno and Joan Chackel.

Joan was found clinging to a tree branch inside her home. She was in the floodwaters for hours and was covered in poison oak. She also suffered a broken wrist that morning.

A firefighter broke off the door of a refrigerator and strapped Reno on top of it, and slogged through mud to rescue him. 

Temporarily they found shelter at a family friend's house in Hope Ranch, and eventually they settled on a temporary home in San Roque.

Reno, however, never fully recovered from the ordeal. He died on June 5, shortly after he turned 92. 

Paul Chackel said that his dad went downhill almost overnight. 

"He kept asking, 'When can we go home,'" Paul recalled. "He didn't understand that there was no home to go back to."

"The ordeal," Paul said, "made him more anxious" and exacerbated to his father's health problems. 

Paul and Julie are anxious to rebuild for their mother. She plays bridge with her friends, and plays golf. Montecito is her home.

Paul said they could just give up and say we’re not rebuilding, and find a new home somewhere else, but the Chackels don't want to do that. 

"You kind of get your ass kicked and you just don’t want to walk away from it," Paul said. "At the end of the day you really don’t have a choice. You have to deal with it whether you like it or not. Santa Barbara is home.

"They lived there for a long, long time. In the later years of life you don’t want to be uprooted."

Julie said she often talks to her mom about the options. Rebuilding is the right decision in the longterm, she said, but if the rebuilding process takes too long, it could come at another cost. 

"Can she physically handle the rebuilding process," Julie said.

Still, Montecito is their home and they want to start again. 

"You have been dealt this hand; your only move is to play it," Julie said. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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