A firefighter stands on the roof of a house submerged in mud and rocks Jan. 10 in Montecito, California. While an aggressive cleanup could mean Montecito will welcome visitors again in weeks, the rebuilding of infrastructure and hundreds of homes will be measured in months and years. (AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A firefighter stands on the roof of a house submerged in mud and rocks Jan. 10 in Montecito, California. While an aggressive cleanup could mean Montecito will welcome visitors again in weeks, the rebuilding of infrastructure and hundreds of homes will be measured in months and years. (AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez)

MONTECITO, Calif. — After power and drinking water return, and cleanup crews haul away the last of the boulders and muck that splintered homes like a battering ram, the wealthy seaside hideaway of Montecito, California, will start rebuilding with the possibility of another catastrophic flood in mind.

Though parts of the town of about 9,000 were spared, the debris flows leveled entire blocks as they killed at least 20 people last week. Sewer lines were ruptured, fire hydrants sheared off, power lines downed.

While an aggressive cleanup could mean Montecito will welcome visitors again in weeks, the rebuilding of infrastructure and hundreds of homes will be measured in months and years. It offers a chance to reimagine aspects of a town that has favored slow growth over the runaway development closer to Los Angeles, 90 miles down the coast.

Telephone and electrical lines could be moved from poles to underground conduits. A micro-grid for solar power would increase self-sufficiency.

Also looming are questions about how to protect the town against future disaster. Is it time to install culverts and storm drains to siphon floods like other Southern California cities have built? Or to require that properties capture stormwater for future use rather than let it cascade to the Pacific Ocean?

“Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this to have an opportunity to” harden a place against the next disaster, said Sheldon Yellen, CEO of disaster recovery firm Belfor Property Restoration. “You can pretty well bet that they will all be looking at every way possible.”

More ambitious proposals would run up against twin realities: Major infrastructure costs major money, and Montecito has traditionally favored a natural aesthetic to maintain its character.

Even in high-cost coastal California, the unincorporated community stands apart. A home is far more likely to sell for over $10 million than under $1 million….