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With Big El Niño Rains Possible, South Coast Cities Already Preparing for the Worst

Ahead of forecasted winter storms, Santa Barbara and Goleta identify problem flooding areas and clear debris from storm drains and creek beds

The Santa Barbara City Council cited Mission Creek as a likely area of flooding if El Niño rains do come this winter. This intersection at Cabrillo Boulevard and State Street, undergoing a bridge replacement and creek improvement project, could be affected during winter storms.
The Santa Barbara City Council cited Mission Creek as a likely area of flooding if El Niño rains do come this winter. This intersection at Cabrillo Boulevard and State Street, undergoing a bridge replacement and creek improvement project, could be affected during winter storms.  (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

No one knows for certain whether Santa Barbara County will see torrential El Niño rains this winter, but South Coast cities are preparing for the worst anyway.

Crews are clearing creek beds of debris, trimming tree branches and more in anticipation, which is why Santa Barbara and Goleta officials were briefed separately on preparedness planning efforts last week.

There’s a 95 percent chance the area will see a “strong” El Niño this year, which could lead to higher than normal rainfall, flooding, mudslides and other emergencies, according to Eric Boldt with the National Weather Service office in Oxnard.

Boldt presented the Santa Barbara City Council with the weather facts last week, noting the potentially historic El Niño season would likely be wettest from January through March, gradually weakening into the spring.

“One El Niño is not going to end the drought,” he said.

“We’re not going to make it up in one winter.”

During the average winter, the area sees about five storms, defined as producing at least an inch of rain.

Boldt said this winter might be on track for 10 to 13 of them — a big reason to beef up fire and public works operations ahead of time.

Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy said the winter of 1997-1998 was the wettest on record, when more than 46 inches drenched Santa Barbara’s South Coast, although widespread flooding occurred as recently as 2004.

“History tells us we’re going to have impassable roads,” he said.

Storms could cause loss of electricity, high winds and surf or evacuations, McElroy said.

Areas that typically see flooding are near Mission and Sycamore creeks, the Laguna Channel, Santa Barbara Airport and the beaches.

McElroy said just 2 feet of standing water could move a vehicle, and he urged residents to always stay out of flood water (because of debris and other hazards) and to think about stockpiling sandbags, food and drinking water now.

To help residents stock up, the city is hosting a "Sandbag Saturday" event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the city’s Annex Yard at 401 Yanonali St. and at Fire Station No. 7 at 2411 Stanwood Dr. Residents can fill 20 bags each —free of charge — while supplies last.

“The preparation is important, but I think cooperation is absolutely essential for us,” he said, noting a citywide department drill scheduled for Oct. 14 and public outreach, especially in the Hispanic community.

“We’re really not trying to crank the fear factor up.”

Public Works director Rebecca Bjork emphasized drainage systems could not contain all the water. She reassured the council that bridge replacement projects under way now — including the work at Cabrillo Boulevard — would be able to convey as much water as before.

Councilman Randy Rowse confirmed that Southern California Edison normally has extra staffing available during winter events.

“Is there anything in the budget to accommodate the street repairs that would be necessary?” Councilman Gregg Hart asked, learning the money would come from reserves.

“If they come, we just need to do the best we can,” he said.

The Goleta City Council heard a similar presentation from municipal staff and officials with Santa Barbara County Flood Control, which will help clean out creeks and drains ahead of time.

Goleta’s preparedness strategy involves preventative maintenance, public outreach and identifying inventory needed, such as the sandbags distributed at Fire Station 14, 320 N. Los Carneros Road.

The city is also preparing an emergency permit to store storm debris on its triangle property near the intersection of Los Carneros and Calle Koral, near City Hall.

Likely flood areas include Fairview Avenue at Hollister Avenue, Fairview at Calle Real, and the 5900 block of Calle Real, in front of The Fig Grill.

“How far in advance will we know we’re going to have a major event?” Councilman Roger Aceves asked, finding out alerts typically come three to four days ahead.

Councilman Michael Bennett thanked staff for the thorough report before asking to add Glen Annie Creek to the list of possible flood areas.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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