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  • Michelle Carlen

Crisis Lessons Learned From The Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudflows

Updated: Mar 13

California held a drought for almost a decade leading up to one of the largest wildfires in the state, starting on December 4th, 2017. The Thomas Fire began in the rural mountainous area of Ventura County and ultimately burned nearly 281,000 acres. At the time, I was working with a local tourism organization in the Santa Barbara region. Hot December temperatures, dangerous winds, and extreme dry conditions fueled relentless flames. So much so, that just days into the fire, it jumped the county line, spreading into Santa Barbara County. This region had seen fires before, but none quite like this. The flames raged for over a month. The city of Santa Barbara hosted evacuees from Ventura County where the fire began and soon became home to its own resident evacuees, filling local hotels and displacing tourists. For those not located in evacuation zones, unhealthy air quality prompted others to flee to neighboring counties to the north. By the time Christmas came, the fire was still uncontained. Finally, in the first week of January, the fire was completely quenched. Many who had evacuated several times throughout the fire were now back in their homes. A more credible sense of normal emerged and the communities at large felt this terrible nightmare was finally over after loss of building structures and a few lives.


On January 9, 2018, a precipitous storm came and changed the course of events in ways that no one could have anticipated. Due to the impending rains, a voluntary evacuation notice was declared by authorities for those residing near the Thomas Fire burn areas. Some evacuated, but some stayed. A few miles south of downtown Santa Barbara, and home to rich and famous including Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres, Montecito residents that disregarded notice awoke at 2:00 AM to traumatic events. A torrential downpour piled inches of rain in just under 15 minutes. This, paired with the previous dry drought conditions, caused ash, remaining Thomas Fire debris, boulders, and rocks, to tumble down the mountains and down through creek beds and ravines. Devastating mudflows, in some cases 10-12 ft high, tore toward the ocean, sweeping away and damaging structures along its path. Several miles of the 101 freeway (the main interstate) completely flooded at various points, impeding traffic in both directions. Unfortunately, the tragic outcome was the loss of innocent lives.


I came to work that morning and learned from the Internet and my colleagues about these events. Disbelief and deep sadness took over as I heard helicopter after helicopter fly over, rescuing dozens of people who were trapped. During the Thomas Fire, our office had followed an already existing crisis plan, enacting phone trees, changing communications to locals and visitors, working with local authorities to ensure the accuracy of our information, and pausing our regular advertising messages. As the first few days after the mudflow carried on, the media quickly launched mass global coverage of the devastation.


For weeks, the 101 freeway, the only access point between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, and the Amtrak railway through a small section of south Santa Barbara County, were closed. The logistical nightmare that played out for companies supplying goods to various areas in California was treacherous. Caltrans relayed an alternate route which added hours extra to trips, causing severe general disruption of business.


The delicate nature of a community going through grief with loss of human life, physical buildings, and possessions was challenging. Balancing that with communications to the rest of the world, combating misinformation from the global media coverage, and maintaining an environment to support the local economy was a tall order. Displaced residents became visitors staying in hotels and continued dangerous weather threatened more flooding in the weeks following. The local authorities created evacuation maps and zones and reverse 911 calls. Hotels offered special evacuation rates for locals, but rooms filled up quickly. Contracted groups and leisure travelers canceled their commitments, while others came anyway.


Certainly, we all understand the value that tourism plays both in good and bad economic times. Through this twin disaster, I personally realized the complexity and critical necessity of developing a mindset of preparation, planning, and adaptability -- not just as it relates to crisis, but how we conduct tourism business daily. The five key takeaways below outline my findings and best practices for incorporating crisis planning in the tourism industry, whether you are a destination, hotel, restaurant, attraction, or tour provider.

1) Always have a crisis plan in place and remember to remain adaptable and flexible. Having a well-thought out, formal crisis communications and operations plan is an absolute must. It isn’t a matter of “IF”, but “WHEN” crisis strikes the basic process by which to conduct business changes. From your internal operations with staff, to your outward communications with potential customers, and even the loss of revenue due to cancellations, changes are inevitable. But, with a plan in place that everyone is familiar with it will be easier to navigate through difficult times.

2) Never underestimate the need to deal with basic human needs during a tragedy. Even with a plan in place, you can never be fully prepared to deal with the traumatic nature of circumstances and situations that present themselves in a crisis scenario. At times, basic human needs of survival are the currency. Business, and anything else become second priority. You may have to deal with impacts such as staff that cannot arrive to work that day, yet you are a restaurant and you need to feed a group of first responders. In these cases, you do what you can and keep in mind at some point this will end. Further, the morale of your employees, friends, and family members must be given full attention. The emotional ramifications of this type of stress are immeasurable.

3) Ethical choices in business may not be what you think they are. In this twin tragedy, one of the common themes was hotels hosting evacuees/residents and not being willing to displace them for contracted groups or leisure reservations on the books. This, by far, is a very difficult situation where the hotel must choose between business on the books and perhaps being a family’s only place to go. Be prepared to know how to handle re-booking guests at a future date if you are a hotel. If you are an operator, be prepared to renegotiate your contract, as this doesn’t necessarily fall under a force majeure clause depending on the circumstances.

4) Communities grieve just as individuals grieve. What became evident during and following the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslide was that those outside of the community weren’t clear if or when it was “safe” to start returning as visitors. Several visitors I spoke with felt they wanted to honor the community by staying away to allow time to “heal” from the tragic events. This was interesting, as mostly it was the thinking from regional visitors and not so much from visitors traveling on long-haul flights. The further away from the area, the less of an impact in someone’s mind.

5) Honor a community dealing with tragedy by giving back. With the previous point in mind, it is important to start communicating out to customers that they are welcome and encouraged to return to for a visit. Bringing business back to a community not only supports healing, but also the economy. In Santa Barbara, the impacted areas of both the fire and mudslide were in micro areas within a larger region, which was perhaps misrepresented by the media and led to the impression the entire city of Santa Barbara had completely been lost.


One final lesson that encapsulates the power of crisis was the sense of resilience and collaboration that the community experienced in banding together. Small retail shops partnered to open their doors offering cash mobs and special receptions to celebrate their businesses re-opening. The AMGEN Tour of California worked with the City and tourism officials to end a portion of its famous cycling race, (televised to millions of viewers globally), right through downtown Montecito where much of the devastation had occurred. This was crucial from a media standpoint to show a positive image of the area and sign that Santa Barbara was once again open for business.

Michelle Carlen is the Founder & President of Alignment Advising, a business and professional development consulting practice with an expertise in the tourism industry. She consults on strategic business planning, crisis planning/management and marketing & sales support for organizations. Contact: michelle@alignmentadvising.com (805) 233-7626 or https://www.alignmentadvising.com




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