Montecito Debris Flow photograph

How Can We Recover From This?

The Monday after the Thomas Fire, everyone in Montecito knew it was going to rain. As a resident of neighboring Santa Barbara, I’ll admit that I felt grateful. The fire had created toxic particles that still seemed to be hanging in the air. Like so many others, I hadn’t been breathing well since the fire. A rainstorm might clear the air.

We also knew a storm might trigger mudslides. The fire that consumed all the vegetation in 300 square miles of hilly terrain burned so hot that root systems were consumed, and the chapparal melted into a sort of temporary paraffin that coated the surface of the soil.  Runoff was guaranteed. People near the burn zone in Montecito were told they should leave their homes—again—after having been away for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. Most ignored the order.

Half an Inch of Rain in Five Minutes

Around 3:30 AM, on January 9, half an inch of rain fell directly on the burn scar above Montecito in just five minutes. The results have been captured in shocking photos: Cars and boulders swept away like toys after a tantrum. Homes, businesses and a Catholic retreat center filled with thick sludge. Reports of people rescued, bodies recovered and people still missing.

Even though we live only five miles from Montecito, I learned about the debris flow from media—social and old-school. In many ways, the images resembled all the many disasters of the previous year— hurricanes in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, fires in Montana and Northern California, blizzards on the east coast, earthquakes in Mexico and Iran, an avalanche in Afghanistan.

I thought I had empathy for the people impacted by those events, but this was different. I’ve driven on the roads made impassable by mud and boulders. I know someone who lost a home, someone who was trapped, people who have been displaced. I stood at the vigil at the local courthouse and heard political and religious leaders struggle to express the grief everyone feels over people who died, people who may never be found and a way of life that cannot be fully restored.

I saw how the damage rippled through the community creating what one social worker called “secondary trauma”. Everyone had stories—or rumors—they needed to share. The mudslide severed the 101,  a major transportation artery, cutting people off from families, jobs and medical services. The commemoration of Martin Luther King Day had to be altered because law enforcement officers assigned to Montecito weren’t available for a march. People who were thinking about visiting for the local film festival or the balmy winter weather decided to wait until another year, putting hotels, restaurants and other small businesses in jeopardy.

Living the Truth of Cooperative Wisdom

In the days since the disaster, I’ve lived the truth of what we wrote in Cooperative Wisdom. When change is sudden and unwanted, it often gives rise to conflict. In Montecito, the blame started almost instantly. Why didn’t local officials insist that people leave their homes? Why should the public pay to rescue of people who ignored evacuation orders? Why didn’t the water company start the back-up generators that would have closed the valves to reservoirs? Why hadn’t the utility maintained or shut off power to the transformers that blew, apparently starting the fire? And why were the truckloads of debris being dumped on beaches?

Some of these questions are sure to be litigated even though it’s unlikely anyone will find a satisfying villain. No one intended for the fire or the mudslide to occur. If there were errors, they were inadvertent. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned and perhaps people or companies should be held accountable, but all that seems deeply beside the point. Like other communities that have suffered devastation, this community will recover not by litigating the past but by re-imagining its future.

And even in the face of change as devastating as this mudslide, the only way forward is through cooperation. What got us through the first horrifying days were images of people—both specialists who had a defined task and ordinary citizens–cooperating to do what they could. First responders mobilized a massive rescue effort. The Army Corp of Engineers   mobilized a Herculean effort to clear the highway as well as creek beds which need to be channel future rainstorms.

Those of us at the margins of the disaster felt something akin to survivor’s guilt. We had been spared. Our houses were standing. By afternoon, the sun was shining. And, yet, we felt wounded. We started reaching out to people we knew—are you OK? What do you need? What have you heard? People spontaneously made an inventory of what they could offer. What specialized skills did they have? What resources could they spare?

A neighbor offered her weekend home to two families who had to evacuate.   People started GoFundMe campaigns for families that had lost everything. A local company that runs whale watching tours organized a ferry to transport hospital staff and other essential workers who couldn’t use the highway to get to work. Hotels offered discounted rates to people who had been displaced. Pscyhologists, healers and even a local acupuncturist offered free treatments to people who were experiencing extreme stress.

Choices after Unwanted Change

Watching all of this up close made it clear that, even when deeply disruptive change occurs, we have choices. Yes, there is shock and grief and fear, and we need to support each other as those waves crash over us. Anger is also very real, especially if we were happy with things the way they were before. It can feel righteous to look for someone to hold accountable.

But there are also opportunities for courage, compassion and generosity. In the weeks since the debris flow, it’s become clear that the community is more likely to recover if everyone practices the social virtues—and appreciates them whenever they are practiced by others. Sometimes Cooperative Wisdom requires large and heroic gestures—the helicopter pilots who lowered baskets for people stranded on rooftops or the rescue dog handlers who slogged through knee-deep mud looking for survivors.

The long-term recovery of the community, however, depends on countless small acts of cooperation—being extra kind to the teacher, clerk or lab technician who managed to get to work despite even when the highway was closed, volunteering to walk pets for people who have relocated to hotels, organizing fundraisers for people who suffered terrible losses but don’t qualify for FEMA benefits, helping someone work through the paperwork needed for insurance, extending patience to officials at public meeting.

After a natural disaster, it may not be possible to restore what was lost. The landscape is scarred. Some businesses close or relocate. Some people decide not to rebuild. Those of us who remain must be deliberate about finding ways to heal ourselves and support our neighbors. In the months ahead, our community—and all the other communities impacted by natural disasters–will need Cooperative Wisdom. We will need to anticipate vulnerability, discern what really matters, imagine alternatives, integrate multiple values and have the courage to persist despite obstacles.

On the Central Coast, we have a precedent for these social virtues. When an earthquake flattened Santa Barbara in 1925, the community reimagined itself, instituting new building codes that created a safer and more beautiful city. Something similar needs to happen now. And it will happen if each of us commits ourselves to strengthening the cooperative spirit that is always at the heart of resilient communities.

Carolyn Jabs

Cooperative Wisdom is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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