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Posted 1/19/2018

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By Jay Field

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commanding general was in California Jan. 18 to visit the site of a deadly mudslide. Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite toured areas of Santa Barbara hit hard by the disaster that left 18 people dead and three missing.

The Corps is clearing debris from 11 basins and 10 channels. Semonite toured two of the basins to get updates on the team's progress.

At a press conference at the incident command post, Semonite told reporters he appreciated the efforts of the team of federal, state and local responders that helped community members impacted by the massive mudslides.

"The team responded as well as they did, [and that] clearly saved lives," Semonite said. "And the question now is, how do you continue to get these structures and the rest of the area back up and running so we're able to take whatever Mother Nature throws at us next. It goes back to not so much what do you do, but how do you work side-by-side as the total vertical team to be able to help respond."

On Jan. 10, the Federal Emergency Management Agency amended the federal disaster assistance declaration made Dec. 4, 2017, for recovery efforts in the areas affected by wildfires to include damage from flooding, mud flows and debris flows directly related to the wildfires. FEMA then assigned the Corps the mission to remove more than 450,000 cubic yards of debris to restore basin and channel capacity and reduce the risk of flooding to homes and businesses. As of Jan. 16, the Corps awarded six contracts valued at more than $20 million for the work.

When asked his impression of the disaster, Semonite said he's an East Coast guy who has only heard about wildfires and mudslides.

"Until you put boots on the ground and you're talking to people ... who know this area real well and understand the magnitude of this, there's nothing you can get out of the front page of a national newspaper or watching the national TV [broadcast]," he said. "You've got to be here to understand it, and I sympathize with the people of this region because this is something that is going to continue to be a risk for years to come."

Semonite toured detention basins in Montecito where he observed Corps contractor crews working to remove mud and rock, including 15-foot boulders that had to be split by a jackhammer in order to be hauled away. The crews remove more than 500 truckloads of debris daily.

Joining Semonite at the press conference was Los Angeles District Commander Col. Kirk Gibbs, FEMA Deputy Federal Coordiniating Officer Jim Cho, California Office of Emergency Services Deputy Division Supervisor Pastor Guevera, Santa Barbara County Deputy Public Works Director Tom Fayram, and Santa Barbara County Fire Department Battalion Chief Anthony Stornetta.

corps debris removal emergency operations FEMA Santa Barbara County USACE