Five months after the catastrophic debris flow that damaged or destroyed 470 homes in Montecito and took the lives of 23 members of our community, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) released an updated flood map on Monday, which will stand as the basis on which property owners rebuild their homes.

The map, which is officially called the Interim Flood Advisory Recovery Map­, reflects updated flood plains –areas that can be expected to flood in heavy rainfalls– and new elevations that resulted from the events related to the 1/9 debris flow. Flood Control Engineering Manager Jon Frye tells us the map is considered a 100-year flood map, and shows where clear water will flood if debris basins and creek channels are full, during this interim period while our watershed recovers from the Thomas Fire. “This map will eventually change, in the next four to five years when our hills are re-vegetated,” he said.

Following the 1/9 debris flow, it was universally acknowledged that previous FEMA flood maps were no longer relevant, although this new map does not replace the current FIRM (FEMA Insurance Rate Map), that determines insurance rates; that map will be redeveloped in about 4-5 years. “There was an aggressive effort to survey properties and develop this interim map as quick as possible, so the community can start to rebuild,” Frye said. 

The map show high hazard flood areas; those are areas within the yellow borderlines. Properties that are within the yellow borders that are not in the blue/purple overlay can expect to flood 0-6 inches during a 100-year flood. Shaded areas on the map reflect a greater risk of flooding; the lightest blue indicates 6 inches to 1 foot of flooding, while the darkest shade of blue (located mostly in the creek channels, although there are some dark blue areas on Highway 101), indicates the potential to flood over 10 feet. Medium shades of blue have varying degree of flood risk, from 12 inches to 5 feet. The pink lines on the map indicate elevation contours, with associated numbers indicating the vertical elevation in feet.

The map reflects changed ground conditions due to mud on the ground and clogged waterways. 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 boundaries. In order to adhere to flood plain ordinances, homeowners will be required to rebuild 2 feet above the base flood elevation indicated on their property.

According to Frye, if a property is located in an area with a “medium-blue” shading, (3.0-5.0 foot flood potential), it would need to be built 2 feet higher than the base flood elevation, which could potentially mean 7 feet higher than the current elevation. “This has a significant implication on how Montecito will look,” said Cori Hayman, chair of the Montecito Association Land Use Committee. Hayman also points out the need to look at rebuilds in a cumulative manner, to see if one property’s rebuild could cause drainage issues to a neighboring property. “It’s unclear yet if the County’s like-for-like ordinance amendments will take that into consideration,” she said.

As of now, properties within the shaded blue areas, that are not 2 feet above base flood elevation, are considered legal non-conforming. Property owners who may want to remodel their homes unrelated to the 1/9 debris flow, may be required to build up if their remodel cost is over 50% of the pre-January appraised value of the current structure (not including the property value).  

“The updated FEMA maps are a key tool to rebuild Montecito,” said Matt Pontes, Santa Barbara County’s Director of Recovery. “The decision of whether or not to rebuild rests entirely with the private property owners of Montecito,” Pontes said. “The FEMA maps will help guide how that process takes shape,” he noted.

The updated flood advisory recovery map is not being used for evacuation purposes; County staff is currently revising evacuation procedures, maps, and rain total thresholds for next winter.

Property owners are encouraged to attend a community meeting TONIGHT at 6 pm at the County Administration Fourth Floor Hearing Room, 105 E. Anapamu Street. Pontes will speak and answer questions, along with the County director of planning and development and flood control officials. They should also scheduled meetings with their case planner to understand the flood risk on their own property, said Frye. The Board of Supervisors will consider adoption of the map on June 19 at its regular meeting to be held in Santa Maria.

To view the interactive map, visit: