Bath and West Ortega streets in Santa Barbara.
Mud covers the intersection of Santa Barbara’s Bath and West Ortega streets on Jan. 10, the day after a major storm flooded the Lower Westside neighborhood. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo

The City of Santa Barbara is proud of its response to the recent storms, creek overflows and flooding, but municipal officials said they did learn lessons about how to improve their response ahead of the next deluge.

“We realize that the communication needs to be better explained and re-enforced,” City Administrator Rebecca Bjork told Noozhawk.

“Anytime you have an event like this, you can always learn from it.”

More than 19 inches of rain fell on Santa Barbara County on Jan. 9 and the South Coast took the brunt of it. In an eerie coincidence, the storm struck on the five-year anniversary of the 2018 Montecito flash flooding and debris flows that killed 23 people.

While there was much anticipation and preparation for storm impacts in Montecito, this time Santa Barbara experienced neighborhood flooding and overflowing creeks, too.

City crews responded to 400 different calls during the storms, and emergency personnel had to make numerous rescues of people stranded in their cars and homes.

Bjork put the city’s storm damage estimate at $15.3 million.

Much of the flooding occurred on the Lower Westside, where creeks rapidly overflowed and residents’ cars were totaled.

Sharon Byrne, a Westside resident and community activist, has hounded the city about its response to the storm.

“They issued no calls for evacuation,” she said. “They were totally pre-2018 in their thinking. This hit them by surprise.”

Byrne’s car was among those with water damage.

She said the city should have put out more electronic communication, evacuated areas prone to flooding, and turned on the Police Department’s new sirens to urge people to evacuate.

“When incidents happen, you have to communicate,” Byrne said, adding that at minimum the city could have put up barricades to alert residents not to park or drive on flooded or at-risk streets.

“They weren’t prepared in the city,” she said.

But Bjork adamantly disagrees, noting that all residents were rescued safely and that there is always an element of surprise in storms.

She said Public Works Department crews were working around the clock before the storms arrived to clear debris from creeks to minimize flooding.

Bjork said setting up barricades is not practical.

“There was flooding and blocked intersections throughout the city,” she said. “Our first priority was to make sure streets are passable.”

But lessons were learned, Bjork said.

She vowed that the city would improve efforts to educate people living along creeks about the potential danger.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) will also work to achieve this goal, she said, and the city will increase Spanish-language efforts on local radio and in official communications.

One major change, Bjork said, will be to allow residents to park their vehicles on upper levels of downtown municipal garages.

“At least they would know they have a secure place for their car,” she said.

She also urged people to keep themselves safe in storms.

“A lot of the damage was people driving through flooded areas, and all we can ask for is compliance,” Bjork said.

In addition to the Lower Westside, parts of the Eastside experienced flooding, particularly on the flood-prone Spring Street.

Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara at 1 N. Calle Cesar Chavez, Suite 21, one of the city’s largest churches, had extensive damage and was forced to relocate its services.

“As we walked the dampened halls of the church, there was a sense of loss among all of us,” the church posted on its Instagram feed. “The flood invaded our space — our home. It was hard not to feel violated in some way — like our house had just been broken into.

“The rains fell hard and the waters were not kind to our building. The kids area that we had spent years renovating was under water. Offices that were once a space for counseling were soaked. And our hallowed sanctuary — our space for worship — was compromised to the foundation.”

Robin Elander, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara, said the rain stopped business during a slow period, but there weren’t any storm-specific damages.

“January is a difficult month in general,” she said. “Then, of course, we had this nasty storm, and no one was coming out.”

On Coast Village Road, mud and debris running down Olive Mill Road from Montecito Creek backed up in front of the Montecito Inn.

Otherwise, Montecito businesses escaped any real damage.

“We don’t like being closed, but we like that the community stayed safe,” said Trey Pinner, president of the Coast Village Association.

Bjork, along with other city officials, have touted the city’s storm response, noting that there were no deaths or serious injuries.

“We really focused on safety first,” she said. “We were actually trying to make sure people were safe.”

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.