Santa Barbara/Montecito, open for business

The streets are still covered in dust, and cars remain caked in mud. But the main streets are cleared, shops are open and vehicles are moving through Montecito, the idyllic Pacific Coast community two hours north of Los Angeles on Highway 101 that has seen more misery in two months than most areas see in two decades.

In December the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, burned nearly 282,000 acres throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, scorching forest land throughout the hills surrounding Santa Barbara and Montecito. Then after the fire came January’s flooding rain. With no forest growth to stop the erosion, the mudslides crashed unimpeded into houses and businesses all the way to the sea, taking 23 lives and hundreds of homes with them.

For an area that depends heavily on tourist dollars, the double whammy from Mother Nature was a crippling blow. According to Visit California, every week Highway 101 was closed resulted in a loss of an estimated $6.6 million of visitor spending in Santa Barbara County. On a per-day basis, the loss was $949,000. But sooner than many expected, the area is open, utilities are coming back on line and residents are returning to their homes.

Many of those homes look very different now—you see a house that looks structurally sound in the front, and then you notice the rocks and debris halfway up the picture window and realize the living room is full of mud and the back of the house is gone.

The mudslide was also random in its destruction. One home is left untouched, while houses on both sides are rubble—dependent upon how the landscape directed the flow. The steep hills surrounding Montecito meant the mud only picked up steam as it barreled into neighborhoods, taking everything in its path and leaving an ugly, gaping wound in the area’s soul.

But as we’ve seen these past few months in Florida and Houston after hurricanes, Sonoma and Napa after their own forest fires, Montecito and its residents are slowly returning to their new normal. Coast Village Road, the main east-west shopping thoroughfare, is busy once again, albeit now with as many construction vehicles as tourists. And Highway 101, the scenic highway that hugs the ocean, is back open.

There is still work to be done, though—conversations on outdoor dining patios are punctuated by the din of power saws and hammers, and pedestrians often have to detour around construction sites. Quaint shops now double as volunteer headquarters, where residents stop by to grab coffee and list the services they can offer. Visit the iconic Montecito Inn website, and a note on the landing page informs visitors that “the hotel is currently evacuated.”

At a Community Tourism Recovery Forum last week, Kathy Janega-Dykes, the president of Visit Santa Barbara, reminded business owners that “we need to support our community. It is critical for our community, for our city and for our employees.

“Right now we need to be posting photos of the blue skies and the ocean…because we want our visitors to return.”

For the latest information on Santa Barbara and Montecito tourism, go to www.santabarbaraca.com.

Alex ReillyTRAVEL