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The full scope: SLO County residents are eligible for federal assistance after elected officials tour areas impacted by January storms 

Vista Court resident Gary Orback was walking his dog on Jan. 9 when he heard a loud roaring sound. In an instant the street he'd lived on for 46 years was full of water and mud.

"I never expected something like this to happen. I knew there was a pond up there," he said, referring to a retention basin holding stormwater runoff from Cabrillo Estates in Los Osos.

Similar to many of his neighbors, he didn't purchase flood insurance for his home, which was damaged when the basin failed around 5 p.m. that day, sending a torrent of water and mud directly into the homes on Vista Court and Montana Way.

"I never thought I'd ever need it. We had big rainstorms in the '80s, and nothing ever happened," Orback said, adding that the area used to get 30 inches of rain in some years.

click to enlarge ASSESSING DESTRUCTION U.S. Rep Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), center right; state Assemblymember Dawn Addis (D-San Luis Obispo), center; and SLO County 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, center left; meet with mudslide victims in Los Osos on Jan. 16. Carbajal asked residents who didn't have flood insurance to raise their hands. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ASSESSING DESTRUCTION U.S. Rep Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), center right; state Assemblymember Dawn Addis (D-San Luis Obispo), center; and SLO County 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, center left; meet with mudslide victims in Los Osos on Jan. 16. Carbajal asked residents who didn't have flood insurance to raise their hands.

On Jan. 9, Los Osos received roughly 4.15 inches of rain, according to SLO County Public Works' rain tracker.

His house was probably one of the least damaged in the incident, Orback said, but he knew that he needed to get on it immediately to prevent mold. He and his son began ripping out the carpet with the help of a contractor. They set up dehumidifiers and fans. He said he has enough money set aside to pay for the cost of repairs.

"I can front this, but I plan on getting it back from somebody," Orback said. "I plan on obtaining that goal one way or another."

He's going to try and recoup his losses either through the Los Osos Community Services District, as it owns the basin that failed, and/or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). On Jan. 17, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties were added to President Joe Biden's major disaster declaration for California, meaning residents like Orback and his neighbors can now file applications for individual assitance with FEMA.

The announcement followed U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal's (D-Santa Barbara) visit to Los Osos, Morro Bay, Guadalupe, Santa Maria, and other flood-ravage areas of the Central Coast on Jan. 16 and 17.

"Seeing firsthand damage gives Congressman Carbajal the stories to push FEMA and President Biden to take action on things like the major disaster declaration," a spokesperson from Carbajal's office said via email on Jan. 17. "Congressman Carbajal met with FEMA officials this morning and shared a number of the stories and assessments that he had gotten from SLO County officials and residents as evidence for them needing to approve this amended disaster declaration."

click to enlarge A PEEK AT DISASTER U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) follows Manya Choboian into her brother's Los Osos home on Jan. 16. The house on Vista Court was red-tagged after being hit by a mudslide around 4:40 p.m. on Jan. 9. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • A PEEK AT DISASTER U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) follows Manya Choboian into her brother's Los Osos home on Jan. 16. The house on Vista Court was red-tagged after being hit by a mudslide around 4:40 p.m. on Jan. 9.

Orback's home is one of the luckier ones in Los Osos. Three homes on the cul-de-sac bore the brunt of the force that evening. SLO County Planning and Building red-tagged them, meaning they pose an imminent threat to health and safety, are unsafe to occupy or even enter, and will require a permit for repair. Orback's home only suffered some minor flooding on the side closest to the slide.

After attending an informal community meeting in the middle of Vista Court with SLO County officials, the Red Cross, and the Los Osos Community Services District on Jan. 12, Orback came back to a yellow piece of paper taped on the stucco next to his garage.

"RESTRICTED USE," it announced. "This structure has been inspected and found to be damaged as described below: Air-dry and remove and replace wet areas."

However, Orback said, county building inspectors hadn't actually entered his house, nor had they spoken with his wife, who was home. Many of his neighbors came back from the meeting to the same surprise, they said.

County Office of Emergency Services spokesperson Rachel Dion said that community members did express their frustration with the county over Planning and Building tagging homes without inspecting the interior. She added that if residents who were tagged would like Planning and Building to come back out and inspect the interior of their homes, they should call (805) 781-5600.

Yellow tags indicate that a home needs repairs but residents' can still access the home and may have to get permits to fix their property. Green tags, Dion said, designate that a property was deemed safe.

As of Jan. 17, the county had red-tagged three homes and yellow-tagged 16 in unincorporated areas, the majority of which are in Los Osos, Dion said. Morro Bay had red-tagged one and yellow-tagged seven, a number that city Manager Scott Collins believes will increase. Arroyo Grande had red-tagged eight and was in the process of reinspecting them to possibly downgrade the tags to yellow. San Luis Obispo city had red-tagged 13 and yellow-tagged 47.

Between Jan. 9 and 17, about 800 residents filled out a county form outlining damages from the storm—reporting more than $30 million in private property/home destruction. Dion said residents no longer need to fill out those forms, as the county is now included in the major disaster declaration. Any SLO County resident with damage from the storms that came through in January can file a claim (including documentation and receipts) with FEMA at disasterassistance.gov or through the FEMA app.

"FEMA's not going to cover 100 percent of their damages; they'll cover a portion of it," Dion said. "I think the majority of people will receive some sort of assistance."

That assistance could cover temporary lodging due to displacement, be low interest loans for home repairs not covered by insurance, and pay out grants for home repairs. County officials met with FEMA on Jan. 18 to discuss next steps, Dion said, which will include setting up a center staffed by FEMA representatives.

Historically, FEMA has provided up to about $40,000 in individual assistance to natural disaster victims, Dion said. That number was shared with Vista Court residents during the community meeting on Jan. 12.

Los Osos Community Services District General Manager Ron Munds said he's encouraging victims of the retention basin mudslide to also file claims with the CSD. As of Jan. 17, the district had received 11 or 12 claims, and Munds said he knew there were other residents who still needed to submit claims. He added that the CSD's insurance company was going to send an adjustor to look at the homes on Friday, Jan. 20.

At the moment, the CSD has roll-off containers, tractors, and a dump truck available to residents impacted by the slide and a contractor on call to help with soil removal. Munds estimated that about 450 yards of sand and dirt had already been removed from homes, their yards, and the streets—most of which was done by community volunteers with wheelbarrows and shovels.

Munds said the slide was devastating, the biggest disaster in Los Osos during his four decades living there. And after the emotional impact of property loss and damage comes the financial toll of trying to take care of repairs.

"It's just tough," Munds said. "The disaster recovery process is slow, there's a lot of bureaucracy, there's a lot of cross-governmental agency stuff that just takes time. That's the unfortunate part." ∆

Reach editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

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