destroyed Montecito home
The FEMA Recovery Map adopted by the Board of Supervisors will impact rebuilding for Montecito residents. Hundreds of homes were heavily damaged in the Jan. 9 debris flow, including this destroyed house on the 300 block of Hot Springs Road.  (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

The interim flood-hazard map developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the Montecito debris flows “drastically increases” at-risk areas, according to Tom Fayram, deputy public works director for Santa Barbara County.

The county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt the map, which supplements the county’s special flood hazard areas.

The so-called FEMA Recovery Map was developed to show the 100-year flood risk after the Jan. 9 debris flows changed local topography and moved creek channels in some cases.

As an interim map, it does not change flood insurance rates – FEMA expects a new version to be developed in the next three to five years – but it will affect rebuilding.

While the map does not show debris-flow risk, it should help people understand their flood risk, said Fayram, who heads county Flood Control. He urged the board to approve the interim map.  

Santa Barbara County has a debris flow risk map on its website here, and links to the FEMA recovery map here.

Click here for the current FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for southern Santa Barbara County.

Through letters to the Board of Supervisors, residents expressed concerns that the map either underestimated or overestimated their properties’ flood risk, which will affect rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed in the debris flows.

The like-for-like rebuilding ordinance, which the supervisors approved May 15, is meant to expedite the approval process for residents who lost their homes in the disaster and want to rebuild without making any significant design changes.

flood hazard map in Montecito

The FEMA Recovery Map indicates flood hazard for the Montecito area, shown here, after the Jan. 9 debris flow. Pink lines indicate the “water surface elevation contours,” blue indicates depth, and yellow outlines the High Hazard Areas, according to Santa Barbara County.  (FEMA photo)

The board unanimously voted to accept the FEMA Recovery Map, which means the county will use it, and the existing FIRMs, to determine areas of special flood hazard and “to determine the elevation height at which development and rebuilding is required to be built.”

FEMA recommends that the county use the interim map in conjunction with existing FIRMS, Fayram said, and use whichever base flood elevation is higher.

Residents may want to rebuild at a higher, or lower, elevation than the maps designate for a given property, and some already have commented that there are errors in the way FEMA modeled flood risk for their properties.

Planning and Development Director Dianne Black said there is some flexibility built into the ordinance, and the county’s goal is to support people through the rebuilding process and help them create safer structures.

Fayram added that if the county finds significant issues with the FEMA recovery map, it can try to compel the agency to make revisions.

After this map was revealed last week, the county held one standing-room-only community meeting and then adopted it at Tuesday’s board meeting, which was held in Santa Maria.

“This map is not gospel, I don’t think it’s perfect,” First District Supervisor Das Williams said. “It’s a model. I think it’s a more useful took than what we have. If we can’t get a more useful tool in the next five or six weeks, this is what we have to go with, knowing FEMA has methods to fix errors.”

Santa Barbara County has an information page on its website about how to use the FEMA Recovery Map

Questions include: 

» Will the FEMA maps require homeowners to elevate homes when rebuilding?

“The county has adopted flood-plain management standards to protect new development and rebuilding of destroyed structures that are in alignment with federal requirements. Typically, minimum finish floor elevation of new structures within the special flood hazard area is required to be two feet above the 100-year flood plain as defined by FEMA. For assistance, please consult your P&D case manager.”

» Where can I find the map legend? What do the colors and numbers represent?

“Numbers shown indicate advisory flood elevations; the yellow lines show limits of water inundation and High Hazard Areas; blue indicates depth; and pink is the water surface elevation contours in feet. To facilitate a safety element appropriate to the changed conditions within the High Hazard Areas, the rebuilding will be informed by the water surface elevations within the boundary.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.