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Mudslide brings economic shock to area built on tourism

By: MICHAEL R. BLOOD and KRYSTA FAURIA, Associated Press
January 13, 2018 Updated: January 13, 2018 at 1:07 am
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photo - This Jan. 10, 2018 satellite image released by DigitalGlobe News Bureau shows Highway 101 after storms caused mudslides and flooding in Montecito, Calif. The number of missing after a California mudslide has fluctuated wildly, due to shifting definitions, the inherent uncertainty that follows a natural disaster, and just plain human error. (DigitalGlobe News Bureau via AP)
This Jan. 10, 2018 satellite image released by DigitalGlobe News Bureau shows Highway 101 after storms caused mudslides and flooding in Montecito, Calif. The number of missing after a California mudslide has fluctuated wildly, due to shifting definitions, the inherent uncertainty that follows a natural disaster, and just plain human error. (DigitalGlobe News Bureau via AP) 

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — The California mudslide that killed at least 18 people is causing distress miles from where the torrent of muck and boulders stopped, as a local economy that thrives on tourism and the lure of sun-soaked beaches was left reeling.

On a postcard-perfect afternoon, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company would normally be bustling with lunchtime diners downing fried calamari and lobster tacos, especially on the cusp of a holiday weekend.

"We would be smashing right now," said manager Sean Johnson, referring to a typical Friday crowd at the restaurant on the edge of Santa Barbara Harbor.

But with the 101 Freeway clogged by mud and debris, cutting off traffic from Southern California, "There is hardly anybody in here," Johnson lamented.

"The big hit," he said, "is people can't get up here from L.A."

As searchers continued to look for bodies in the thick mud and evacuations remained in effect, the economic damage ranged up and down the coast, far from where the mudslide ravaged the celebrity getaway of Montecito.

In affluent Summerland, just east of where the mud flow cut a swath through homes and businesses alike, a liquor store with its door open was a lonely outpost. Restaurants and hotels were dark in Montecito, where 65 homes were destroyed, hundreds more damaged and power and water shut off.

The historic San Ysidro Ranch, where President John F. Kennedy and his wife honeymooned, was heavily damaged.

Santa Barbara is a tourist magnet, attracting visitors to its famous beaches and trendy restaurants. But on Friday there were plenty of seats at eateries, pedestrian traffic was unusually light and parking spaces were often empty.

Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast, said the area is being shaken by a three-pronged problem: Tourists aren't coming in their usual numbers, residents have been forced to move out and thousands of workers can't get to their jobs.

He said some 12,000 daily commuters drive into Santa Barbara from the south, a route now blocked. Those people aren't buying lunch or coffee, or filling up the gas tank on the way to work.

Residents are uprooted, the dollars they would pump into the economy gone with them. January is not high tourism season in Santa Barbara, but now-closed seaside hotels typically lure crowds throughout the year.

Making matters worse, the area recently witnessed a monster wildfire that torched homes and sent clouds of ash and smoke into communities. Meanwhile, beaches were closed to swimming, after health officials said mud and runoff from heavy rains contained unknown amounts of sewage and contaminants.

"The stigma that we have right now, it's flooded, it's burned, there is mud everywhere. That is not going to be helpful with tourists," Schniepp added.

The economy will eventually recover, starting when the freeway reopens, possibly as early as Monday.

"Once the freeway opens up, fingers crossed, we are counting on bouncing back," said Johnson, the restaurant manager, who has had to cut back on workers in the meantime, while dealing with delayed produce deliveries.

But it's not known when many residents in Montecito can return, and widespread damage is likely to take months or longer to repair.

Ken Oplinger, who heads the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, said the combination of the wildfire and the mudslide could doom some smaller businesses.

The threat, when tourists stay away: "You just don't have the cash flow to continue," he said.

Patrick Casey, owner of the State & Fig restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, said he's worried but expressed confidence that his business, and the community, will snap back.

During the fires, the restaurant lost holiday parties and customers, but they made adjustments. If needed, they will again, he said.

"This whole experience has been humbling," Casey added.

"We're really hoping once the dust settles, there will be new life here."

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