Forum Explores What’s Next in Post-Disaster Era

The “What Happened and What Now?” forum March 28 was long on updated disaster estimates, but rather short on what will happen next. 

An audience of several hundred gathered at the darkened Lobero Theater on a sunny afternoon to hear UCSB Economic Forecast Project chief Peter Rupert say that the to date total estimated damage caused by the Thomas fire and Montecito mudslide stands at $1.8 billion overall for now. 

He opined that it may be unlikely that most residential property owners to rebuild based on the small number, only 20 percent, of the 2008 Tea fire property owners who came back. 

However, a survey of several hundred business owners indicated that 90 percent will be back, even though a smaller amount may leave or switch to more online commerce. 

“If it’s not safe, no one will live there,” said Rupert said. He said restaurants and retail stores lost the most in the disasters: some $104 million in revenue. 

The survey showed many businesses were closed about two weeks, but one was shut 72 days. The Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and heavily damaged San Ysidro Ranch resort are still closed. The Biltmore possibly may reopen in June, officials said. 

However, with at least 213 employees laid off, 13 businesses said they won’t rehire. A third of the survey respondents said tourism will be hurt by the disasters, Rupert said. 

South Coast tourism czar Kathy Janega-Dykes, head of Visit Santa Barbara, told the crowd that she is “cautiously optimistic” that the usual numbers of Santa Barbara visitors will return soon. 

She said hundreds of millions is spent by visitors annually. However, since December the tourism industry saw a $29 million loss in hotels and related services. But because many out-of-town firefighters and government officials had to stay at lodgings here, the bed tax increased. 

Along with state tourism help, Janega-Dykes said Visit Santa Barbara is using digital billboards in Los Angeles County to help bring in visitors back to the South Coast. 

County Clerk-Recorder Joe Holland displayed bleak pictures of the Montecito devastation, which he said blurred property lines so badly that his personnel will have to make individual assessments. 

His photos show how the retreat center La Casa de Maria was mostly wiped out by the mudslide. He said property reassessments may not be made until mid-May. 

Betsy Shafer, assistant county controller, said real losses to the county won’t be known until late April. However, for now it looks like about $46 million in damage was caused from the disasters. She said the Federal Emergency Management Administration may reimburse some of that, but the timing is uncertain. 

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