Shomik Mukherjee and Jack Betz
Executive Managing Editor and Staff Writer
Sundays in Isla Vista are relatively quiet. The traditional “day of rest” is indeed so for students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who use the last leg of the weekend to recover from the two more exhilarating nights preceding it.
Dori Lucero, a third year environmental studies major, was using the afternoon of a particular Sunday, Jan. 22, to relax at her apartment on 6653 Del Playa Drive. She sat on the living room couch, using her laptop with the earphones plugged in. Outside, the afternoon stretched into evening, as the sun set on another I.V. weekend.
The living room in Lucero’s unit overlooked a broad patio, from which one could receive a scenic vista of the Pacific Ocean. Balconies that stand nearly atop the water are a fixture of the “ocean side” of Del Playa. Students each year clamor for the chance to live in the beachside properties, many of which are built on mountainous cliffs above Isla Vista Park Beach.
The afternoon was not going to remain quiet for Lucero.
“I heard it before I saw it,” she said Friday, days after the incident. “I thought somebody had crashed everything in our kitchen, like the shelves had collapsed.’
It was not the kitchen shelves that collapsed, but the entire balcony outside, along with the mountain bluffs beneath. Lucero heard screaming and looked up to see the last of the cliffs crumbling away. Not knowing where the collapse was going to stop, she yelled to her roommate. The two grabbed their phones and wallets and scrambled out.
As firefighters and building engineers began to arrive to the property, Lucero said she was shaking. Her adrenaline had fully kicked in, she said, especially at the thought the house might have gone down with her still in it.
“Obviously everyone was okay,” she said, “so that was the biggest thing.”
When the commotion had settled, it became clear the entire backyard patio had collapsed, along with the walkway adjacent to the complex. Students spent a great deal of time out on the balcony and walkway, Lucero said, whether it was for tanning in the sunlight or to play drinking games. The residents’ own beer-die table was destroyed in the collapse.
After the firefighters had examined the apartment, they allowed Lucero and her housemates to retrieve their belongings. Within five minutes, the group gathered their personals and then quickly evacuated again. The residents were now officially without a home.
Erosions have long been a sore subject for beachside I.V. homes. Rainfall, wave erosion and groundwater seeps have steadily crumbled the sedimentary rock that supports the properties.
The residence at 6653 Del Playa Drive is owned by Del Playa Rentals, one of the largest I.V. housing groups. The company has been a mainstay of I.V. housing for years, and its proprietor, James Gelb, has dealt with the consequences of cliff erosion for much of that time.
After a chunk of rock and soil crumbled from 6709 Del Playa Drive in Nov. 2015, Gelb began issuing “cutbacks” to the houses, moving them closer to the street once the cliffs eroded to a distance of around 10 to 15 feet from the houses. If a house reaches within 5 feet of a cliff’s edge the Building & Safety Division of Santa Barbara County Planning and Development mandates the houses be moved or the cliffs be repaired.
Following the collapse, Gelb plans to demolish parts of the 6653 Del Playa complex. For 28 residents, including Lucero, that meant it was time to find a new place to live.
Many of the residents “crashed” on friends’ couches in the days after the incident. Lucero slept at a friend’s house for the first night following the collapse before shifting to a nearby hotel.
Gelb had paid to move the residents’ belongings out of the house on Thursday, and also returned the residents’ security deposits in the form of checks.
But some residents’ food had been trapped inside their complex. Many students had to pay to stay at hotels. At its Jan. 25 meeting, the Associated Students Senate requested the Isla Vista Tenants Union to allocate $300 per student in response to the collapse.
The residents gathered at the A.S. Legal Resource Center on Friday to meet with IVTU, as well as the LRC’s in-house lawyer, Robin Unander.
Unander made it clear this is not the first time she has crossed paths with Gelb. She said Gelb had been planning to move the complex “forward,” closer to the street, in anticipation of problems.
But no one could have foreseen the heavy rains and waves, Unander said, and so the rental company had likely waited on following through with its plans.
Lucero spoke up at the meeting, pointing out that the waves had steadily been hitting the property more and more strongly before the collapse. She also noted the large crack on the patio. According to Lucero, construction workers had arrived during the week before the collapse occurred, apparently to fill up the narrow crevice in the patio floor.
“When I moved in, my mom said to me, ‘don’t step over the crack,’” Lucero said. “I laughed at her then, which is funny now.” Another resident noted the crack had often been a “tripping hazard” during the residents’ time living in the property. The collapse had fallen right along the crack in question, she said.
Unander stressed that any conflict would need to arise out of a “contract issue” rather than a case of foul play, especially since no one was hurt. A representative from IVTU asked the residents to provide receipts in order to receive reimbursements in the following few days.
Following the meeting, Lucero said there would be little reason to pursue a lawsuit, financially speaking. The main thing she suffered, she said, was a great deal of emotional stress and frustration.
Gelb Defends Oceanside Properties
Lucero had noted Friday that interactions between the residents and Gelb had not been positive. She credited Gelb for arriving at the property the night of the incident, but said they had since received mixed information from Gelb throughout the week. At certain points, Gelb had worked himself into a state of anger during their interactions, Lucero said.
Lucero went on to say Gelb had never warned the residents that the property might face damage and questioned why Gelb had ordered construction on the crack in the patio during the week preceding the collapse.
“I would really like to know why this week, of all weeks, he came in and patched up the crack and made it look pretty,” Lucero said. “All week they were patching up the crack with tiles. We weren’t told there would be construction. They just showed up.”
In a separate interview with Gelb on Friday, he railed against the notion that he had not properly handled the situation. He described the erosions as a “crapshoot,” saying it was not possible to predict which properties would face the consequences of erosion at which times.
“You can lose a foot one year,” Gelb said, “or five feet, and then lose nothing for the next 10 years.” He said the rains had exacerbated the problem of erosion, but there was no way to have predicted the collapse would happen.
The “hairline” crack in the patio, which the residents had alluded to at the meeting, was not a significant factor in the erosion, Gelb said. He described the notion that the crack “had something to do with [the patio collapsing]” as “garbage.”
Gelb said he had indeed instructed workers to place tiles over the crack, but said that 20,000 pounds would not collapse because of a small fracture in the patio floor.
“They’re bitter and upset,” Gelb said of the residents. “They have no knowledge of structural engineering or geology.” He said the residents’ opinion was “misguided,” and suggested anyone thinking the crack was at fault was “somebody who was angry because they were displaced.”
He went on to say those blaming him, and not the weather, for the incident were “drunken girls at the bars downtown.”
Gelb said the building department of Santa Barbara County mandates a property be “cut back,” or moved further away from the ocean, when the bluffs erode to within five feet of the edge of the property.
Residents displaced by the collapse have no grounds for legal action, Gelb said. “Any lawsuit against me would be frivolous,” he said. “It would be laughed out of court.”
The incident was altogether a result of nature, Gelb said. “What happened with Katrina?” he asked, referring to the deadly hurricane that hit New Orleans in August 2005. “Nobody ever expected something like that.”
The rest of the Del Playa Rentals properties are fine, he said, and have been regularly scheduled for “cutbacks” when the building department deemed the bluffs to be too close. Ironically, he said, the side that was 15 feet from the bluffs was the one that gave way in the collapse. On the other hand, the side five feet away from the bluffs did not erode an inch, he said.
Gelb’s final point was that the distance of a property from a cliff is largely unimportant. Instead, it is “Mother Nature” who plays the most important part in these kinds of collapses, he said.
What also plays a part in dangerous incidents involving residents, Gelb said, is the residents’ own behavior. He referenced an instance when a resident had fallen off the cliffs after placing a couch over the rail that guards the patio from the bluffs. The resident had begun bouncing between the two sides, Gelb said.
In response, Gelb said, a 10-feet-high chain link fence was placed between the property and the cliffs.
“So they’re in prison, because that’s how stupid they are,” he said. He also criticized residents who sit on the rails and face the ocean. “I saw a kid who climbed over the rail and stood on a piece of the patio, 2×2 feet, and he just stood there like an idiot.”
Gelb said he regularly took photos of students whom he caught sitting on the rails, “taking their lives into their own hands.” He suggested those residents should question themselves before criticizing him.
Erosions in I.V.
Erosion events such as the recent slide on the 6600 block of Del Playa act as a reminder of the town’s impermanence. A coastal urban development like I.V. has and will continue to be subject the erosive affects of weather events. The most apparent force is that contained in the ocean waves that smash against the cliff base.
“Plunging breakers,” ocean waves with shorter wavelengths and steeper faces, occur more often in storm conditions and can strip away sand from a beach. When a plunging breaker breaks it can trap pockets of air which are then delivered into the cliff with the force of “several thousand pounds per square foot.”
This power can be heightened in respect to the composition of detritus or the presence of larger materials such as logs or driftwood in the surf that act like battering rams against the face of the cliff. Heavy or successive precipitation and extreme weather events such as El Niño are likely to exacerbate these effects in further.
In his book, “Santa Barbara, Land of Dynamic Beauty, A Natural History,” UCSB Professor Edward Keller writes that the average rate of sea cliff erosion in Isla Vista is six inches per year. This figure can be misleading, however, since the “actual rate” is “variable from a fraction of an inch to several inches per year” due to the infrequency of significant erosion events.
The specific composition of shale varies within the region of Santa Barbara. Keller states that “east of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, the rocks of the sea cliff are Santa Barbara Sand or Casitas Formation.”
I.V. itself is built on the Miocene Sisquoc Formation, a crumbly, compacted shale that gives away in small, frequent slides. Keller describes it as “so soft that you can crumble it in your hand.” Denser, harder rock would fall less often but the slides would be much larger.
Preventative actions such as the construction of a seawall to absorb the force of waves or beach nourishment, (the addition of sand to act as buffer), are questionable as to their effectiveness and ultimately only slow what is inevitable.
Seawalls are often avoided due to their lack of aesthetic appeal. When implemented, however, they thin the beach and protect only the base of the seacliff. They do nothing to prevent bluff-top erosion from runoff, which increases with development, or other physical disturbances.
The beach acts as a bulwark for the seacliff. When the ocean pulls out more sand than it puts in the beach shrinks and the cliff becomes increasingly vulnerable. Keller writes that sand flow in Santa Barbara is directed by “dominant wave action … [consisting] of waves approaching from the west and north,” but storms can alter this pattern.
A Shaky Future
Fortunately for Lucero and her housemates, they were able to find a new house by the end of the week. They’re now situated in a house on Trigo Road, a street that lies two blocks from Del Playa.
Lucero reflected on all that transpired during the week, saying she was certainly upset at first but it was now time to move on. She had been told her housemates would need to split in the wake of the collapse, but her group will remain intact, the members all living together in the house on Trigo.
“I feel grateful that we found a place for the entire unit,” she said, “and it’s far away.”
Though she will live far removed from the oceanside cliffs for the next few months, Lucero is set to be back on a beachside lease during the 2017-18 school year. In regard to any leftover trauma she might feel from the incident, Lucero said she will “see how it goes.”
“I think I’ll always look at it a little differently,” she said, referring to the bluffs. “When you’re at some party and everybody’s on the balcony, I used to not take it seriously but now I definitely will.”