Hundreds packed into the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Fleischmann Auditorium on Sunday to discuss the impacts of the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 Debris Flow two years later. Living in wake of these disasters every day, community members had the chance to learn from, ask questions and engage with local experts and policymakers.
This conversation was a follow up to the drought, fire and flood town hall the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, Community Environmental Council, SBMNH, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and Santa Barbara Foundation held in 2018.
Together, the organizations gathered the community once again to not only see what’s been learned in the last two years, but also create a plan for what can be done to protect against another potential disaster.
“This is our window to share what has been learned and to consider what we still have to learn,” said Luke Swetland, SBMNH President and CEO. “(It’s a way) to better inform our collective ability to balance ensuring community safety and protecting environmental health moving forward.”
Through a series of flash talks, panel discussions and live Q&As, experts and audience members alike pointed towards a series of issues that everyone feels firsthand but cannot be solved alone. Topics jumped from debris flow and the climate to preparing for emergency and individual action.
By highlighting different organizations, issue areas and ideas, the conversation didn’t seek to create one uniform action plan. Instead, the discussions worked to generate a series of solutions addressing the problem from every angle.
“We’ve all focused on different pieces of the puzzle,” said Steven Gaines, UCSB Bren School Dean. “But how do we put these pieces together to have a more comprehensive conversation? If we keep talking, we can see what different constituencies need to bring to the table to solve this.”
With engagement in mind, the event motivated participation, ensuring not a single piece of the puzzle was left unturned. As the discussion progressed, audience members took part in online polls and submitted any lingering questions, all to gauge what areas need attention and where to start first.
For many in the auditorium, that attention drifted towards debris flow management. When asked how well they think the community has learned from past issues in debris management to increase resiliency, the audience answered at two ends of the spectrum. Some thought the community had grown immensely, while others believed they still had a long way to go.
Turns out, the answer is both. As part of the panel discussions, Santa Barbara County Flood Control’s Tom Fayrum reviewed the role regulatory agencies play in debris flow management. Mr. Fayrum noted a lot of work had been done to ensure material swept up by storms is kept out of vital waterways.
Dams and debris basins restrain rock, sand, silt, mud and organic waste from clogging drainage channels or even continuing on into the ocean. The problem lies in what to do with that debris once it has been collected.
“We have the extremely difficult job of managing the amount of material that comes of watershed and where does this go?” said Mr. Fayrum. “Do we starve our beaches of this material or reintroduce that? Do we haul it 70 miles away?”
Ultimately, Mr. Fayrum believes the community must find a place where debris can be sorted and distributed rather than thrown away and wasted.
At the individual level, a revised debris flow management system could have a huge impact. Margaret Connors, a retired member of the UCSB Bren School, came to the discussion to highlight the importance of debris and public health, an issue she knows all too well.
“I live on the Salt Marsh in Carpinteria which was dredged six months after the disaster, and I became very ill, as did a lot of people in my community,” said Ms. Connors. “I came here to bring up public health as an issue when future decisions are made about how to deal with debris.”
Ms. Connors contracted a non-contagious form of tuberculosis. After watching her and her community suffer under the efforts to manage materials, she believes a different approach is in order.
“I think the county needs to integrate some of their departments to be more mindful of the air pollution coming from the trucks that help dredge the Marsh,” said Ms. Connors. “We also need to pay attention to what kinds of things are being dredged up in the first place.”
This points to a larger concern that echoed around the room – the environment. While disasters can be managed, there’s only so much that can be done in an unpredictable climate.
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s Ben Pitterle emphasized a change of perspective in the face of rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns. To him, humans must at some point learn to move out of nature’s way, rather than bend it to their will.
“We can’t control nature,” said Mr. Pitterle. “There’s new innovative solutions, but we need to start talking about getting out of the way.”
Towards the end of the conversation, focus shifted from translating these broad environmental concerns into changes people could make at home. Those who spoke throughout the event gathered onstage to lay out clear steps to follow.
While experts encourage connecting with neighbors in lieu of an emergency or simply reducing carbon footprints, some in the audience were left wanting more.
“You’re the expert, tell me what I need to do, and I will put that on my list,” said Helen Perez. “They kind of touched on this at the end, but I think we need something that tells us what we should do as a residents and how that would help.”
For Sarah Anderson, this is why the conversation needs to continue. As a UCSB Bren School Associate Professor, Ms. Anderson has researched the role of saliency and risk in a community after a disaster. She has found an area that loses its urgency and awareness of danger is at the most risk of damage when catastrophe eventually strikes.
To promote saliency, awareness cannot subside. This means passing knowledge onto one another.
“My research does show that both legislators and people are really motivated by hearing about what has really happened as opposed to hearing some hypothetical scenario,” said Ms. Anderson. “I see this kind of event as a really important way for us to keep telling our story.”
“We need to keep telling ourselves and reminding ourselves because that’s what informs action,” continued Ms. Anderson. “Conversations keep that memory and keeps us prepared.”