Hollywood Mobilizes to Rebuild Montecito After Mudslides: "I Don't Think People Grasp the Enormity"

Courtesy of Michael Calcagno
Local real estate agent Michael Calcagno photographed areas that are still off-limits to residents.

As the community reels from the deadly disaster, residents from Oprah to Rob Lowe mourn their neighbors and raise funds for recovery, even as a lawsuit brews.

"It looked like we'd been attacked by a vastly superior planet," says writer-producer Les Firestein when asked to describe what he witnessed Jan. 10, the morning after mudslides ravaged the hillsides of Montecito. It was the scale of the destruction — RV-size boulders, homes sheared in half, if not entirely vanished from their foundations — that was most astonishing. "Like an Imax movie," says the Emmy-nominated Firestein, a 12-year resident.

"I don't think people grasp the enormity of it," adds WME's Rick Rosen, who bought a home in Montecito in 2009. The ongoing forced evacuation has restricted Rosen from personally surveying his property, but images from a neighbor's outdoor surveillance camera suggest that his home was spared. Many of Rosen's neighbors weren't so lucky. "You watch images of tornadoes in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas — you never think anything like that could happen in Santa Barbara," he says. "It's just crazy and shows no one is immune to these things, regardless of your socioeconomic standing."

When Charlie Chaplin opened the Montecito Inn in 1928, he forged a link between the 8-square-mile community and Hollywood A-listers who have been lured by the town's laid-back charms ever since. Oprah Winfrey makes her primary residence there, as does Rob Lowe, and writer Dick Wolf, Ellen DeGeneres, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges all own homes there — not to mention executives including Anne Sweeney and Paula Askanas (formerly of Disney and Sony, respectively) and Disney's Kevin Brockman. ("The sadness … I kind of can't get beyond it," said Lowe on DeGeneres' show Jan. 19. Bridges revealed via Twitter that his home was "severely damaged"; Winfrey's home, which is next to Bridges', also incurred damage, according to a video the OWN CEO posted on Instagram.)

The mudslides killed at least 21 people (at press time, two were still missing), destroying more than 125 homes, damaging nearly 300 and traumatizing this community of about 9,000 residents. Some estimates predict that more than 12 percent of the housing stock was either wiped out or severely damaged, with the estimated cost of the destruction climbing as high as $1 billion or even $2 billion. The 101 Freeway was closed for 12 days. Now, the shock is slowly dissipating, making way for the budding recovery effort Montecito Now, a nonprofit that aims to capitalize on the unique clout of residents and the ample resources available to the close-knit community.

Montecito Now currently has about a dozen local backers, but organizers expect it to grow substantially, according to writer-producer Gwyn Lurie, who chairs the Montecito school board and is serving as spokesperson for the effort. "The plan is to not wait for a bureaucratic response. The subheading here is: Paradise not lost," says Lurie. A host of government agencies have been on hand since the mudslides, including FEMA, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and fire departments from Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties as well as Santa Barbara County's own. The dislocation of residents has made coordination difficult, but officials believe that community support for the recovery effort will grow. "There are a lot of smart but also philanthropic people who live there, so I expect there will be a lot of mobilization," says Rosen.

Montecito Now aims to raise money in the high seven figures (multiple GoFundMe campaigns are raising funds for families and animals affected by the disaster) to develop solutions to the area's most pressing problems: In addition to the rebuilding of homes, priorities include upgrading the emergency response system, reseeding the hillsides to avoid future mudslides and updating firebreaks. But the most pressing issue is getting the utilities turned on so residents can return to their homes. Since 1921, the town has had its own water district, which provides the area independence from Santa Barbara County. But on the night of the mudslides, the debris created main-line breaks that allowed some 9 million gallons of water to drain from the reservoirs. It's unclear when and how water will be restored, and some estimates say it could still be weeks before certain residents will be able to return to their homes.

On Jan. 12, several residents filed a lawsuit alleging that Southern California Edison and Montecito Water District are liable for damages and injuries caused by both the flooding and the massive Thomas Fire that preceded it. Among the handful of plaintiffs in the mass tort suit is singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman, and attorney Joseph Liebman expects at least a dozen more victims to add their names as plaintiffs in the coming weeks.

Residents remain resolute about salvaging not only the physical assets of Montecito — where the median home price hovers around $3.4 million, according to Zillow — but also its unique atmosphere.

Sotheby's broker Michael Calcagno says he has spoken with a few older clients who want to leave, but they are in the minority. "This is a super-tight-knit community, and almost everyone knew one of the victims who passed away or they were at most one degree of separation away from them," he says. "But people aren't running around sobbing and crying. They're saying, 'Let's get the bulldozers and go and fix this.' That is the amazing power of this community."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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