Mud­slide brings eco­nomic shock to area

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL - Bill Asher walks through mud in his home dam­aged by storms in Montecito, Calif. By Michael R. Blood and Krysta Fau­ria

SANTA BAR­BARA, Calif. — The Cal­i­for­nia mud­slide that killed at least 18 peo­ple is caus­ing dis­tress miles from where the tor­rent of muck and boul­ders stopped, as a lo­cal econ­omy that thrives on tourism and the lure of sun-soaked beaches was left reel­ing.

On a post­card-per­fect af­ter­noon, the Santa Bar­bara Shell­fish Com­pany would nor­mally be bustling with lunchtime din­ers down­ing fried cala­mari and lob­ster tacos, es­pe­cially on the cusp of a hol­i­day week­end.

“We would be smash­ing right now,” said man­ager Sean John­son, re­fer­ring to a typ­i­cal Fri­day crowd at the restau­rant on the edge of Santa Bar­bara Har­bor.

But with the 101 Free­way clogged by mud and de­bris, cut­ting off traf­fic from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, “There is hardly any­body in here,” John­son lamented.

“The big hit,” he said, “is peo­ple can’t get up here from L.A.”

As searchers con­tin­ued to look for bod­ies in the thick mud and evac­u­a­tions re­mained in ef­fect, the eco­nomic dam­age ranged up and down the coast, far from where the mud­slide rav­aged the celebrity get­away of Montecito.

In af­flu­ent Sum­mer­land, just east of where the mud flow cut a swath through homes and busi­nesses alike, a liquor store with its door open was a lonely out­post. Restau­rants and ho­tels were dark in Montecito, where 65 homes were de­stroyed, hun­dreds more dam­aged and power and wa­ter shut off.

The his­toric San Ysidro Ranch, where Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and his wife hon­ey­mooned, was heav­ily dam­aged.

Santa Bar­bara is a tourist mag­net, at­tract­ing vis­i­tors to its fa­mous beaches and trendy restau­rants. But on Fri­day there were plenty of seats at eater­ies, pedes­trian traf­fic was un­usu­ally light and park­ing spaces were of­ten empty.

Mark Sch­niepp, direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Eco­nomic Fore­cast, said the area is be­ing shaken by a three-pronged prob­lem: Tourists aren’t com­ing in their usual num­bers, res­i­dents have been forced to move out and thou­sands of work­ers can’t get to their jobs.

He said some 12,000 daily com­muters drive into Santa Bar­bara from the south, a route now blocked.

Those peo­ple aren’t buy­ing lunch or cof­fee, or fill­ing up the gas tank on the way to work.

Res­i­dents are up­rooted, the dol­lars they would pump into the econ­omy gone with them. Jan­uary is not high tourism sea­son in Santa Bar­bara, but now-closed sea- side ho­tels typ­i­cally lure crowds through­out the year.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the area re­cently wit­nessed a monster wild­fire that torched homes and sent clouds of ash and smoke into com­mu­ni­ties.

Mean­while, beaches were closed to swim­ming, af­ter health of­fi­cials said mud and runoff from heavy rains con­tained un­known amounts of sewage and con­tam­i­nants.

“The stigma that we have right now, it’s flooded, it’s burned, there is mud ev­ery­where. That is not go­ing to be help­ful with tourists,” Sch­niepp added.

The econ­omy will even­tu­ally re­cover, start­ing when the free­way re­opens, pos­si­bly as early as Mon­day.

“Once the free­way opens up, fingers crossed, we are count­ing on bounc­ing back,” said John­son, the restau­rant man­ager, who has had to cut back on work­ers in the mean­time, while deal­ing with de­layed pro­duce de­liv­er­ies.

But it’s not known when many res­i­dents in Montecito will be able to re­turn, and wide­spread dam­age is likely to take months or longer to re­pair.

Ken Oplinger, who heads the Santa Bar­bara Re­gion Cham­ber of Com­merce, said the com­bi­na­tion of the wild­fire and the mud­slide could doom some smaller busi­nesses.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

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