Local Government
Santa Barbara County Utilizes Technology with a Human Touch to Aid in Debris-Flow Recovery

Santa Barbara County Utilizes Technology with a Human Touch to Aid in Debris-Flow Recovery

By David Leibler.

The emotional scars from the 2018 devastating debris flow in Santa Barbara County are still as evident as the vacant lots scattered through the Montecito community. The nature of the destruction during that January night is difficult to put into words.  In a matter of minutes, 23 people lost their lives, nearly 500 properties destroyed or damaged, and an estimated $175 million in property damage.

There are scores of stories of how individuals have stepped up to help those in need. And one of those stories is how the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department developed a web-based GIS mapping tool that helped inform, educate – and relieve the anxiety  of — property owners who fled the devastated Montecito region and had no idea on the status of their property or how to begin rebuilding.

It’s through their work that CSAC has honored the County with the California Counties Innovation Award – the top honor in the Association’s annual Challenge Awards that spotlight best practices among California’s 58 Counties.

Immediately after the debris flow devastated Montecito, county planning staff was on site to assess the damage.

“There was an immediate need to gather as much information as possible,” said Jeff Wilson, Assistant Director for the County Planning and Development Department. “We needed to respond quickly and have information available to the public. We wanted a transparent process and help people answer the question, where do I begin?”

While the information that was gathered initially – such as safety assessments of each property — assisted County staff, it was quickly made available online to the public that was being kept out of the impacted area. Through the County’s GIS mapping tool, residents could see the status of their property after it had been assessed by county staff.

The mapping system also presented long-term assistance as the available information can help residents in the rebuilding process. “A lot of people are not familiar with the permitting process,” Wilson explains. ”This program allows them to get the information and get used to interacting with the county agency. The program helped ease stress and created greater transparency.”

Residents as well as County staff are now able to access information through the user-friendly program that had never before been available in one location. A property owner just has to go to the link on the County website, click on his/her property and immediately have access to all the same information as the county planning staff.

A property owner can quickly find parcel information, the property’s permit history and assessor records, archived planning and building permit records, an assessment of property damage, zoning designations, flood hazard areas, and pre- and post-disaster imagery.

The GIS mapping program has been a significant time saver for both residents and staff. Previously, a property owner would have to travel to County offices and request information in person.  And the County estimates the interactive map has saved more than $100,000 in staff time since necessary information is so readily available to staff.

The County also assigned a “case manager” to each property so owners have a single point of contact to help navigate them through what can be a complex process. This allowed for efficient communication and expedited the flow of information to property owners. And it brought an important human element to the process at a very critical and emotional time.

“Behind this map is a real human element where we are here to help,” Wilson says. “And we want to help that healing process on an individual and community level. “

Brett Buyan, a mapping GIS analyst for the County, played a lead role in developing the program.  A resident of neighboring Ventura County, Buyan was unable to get to work for days after the debris flow due to the closure of Highway 101. So he began creating the mapping system remotely from his home.

Once he was able to make it into the office, Buyan began to work with other departments on how the mapping system could assist them, and he was able to incorporate different features and layers into the program. “This was really a collaborative project,” he says, adding that the collaboration was not only between county departments, but with the private sector as well.

Suzanne Elledge is a private planning consultant in Santa Barbara County. She and her staff volunteered time to assist in collecting and scanning in needed permits that are used in the program. She calls the mapping system “fantastic” but adds that it goes beyond just making information available. Elledge explains how the County has shown an incredibly “human side” in how it responded to this devastating disaster – and the Planning Department staff’s efforts are a perfect example of this.

“The County’s humanity really helped a lot of residents,” she says. “For residents to have that support and that human response has been very heartening for us in the community.”

Originally posted at the California Association of Counties.

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