Massive Landslide in Big Sur Blocks Freeway

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The magic of Big Sur lies in its seclusion, the twisty, mountain roads that carry residents — and visitors — to dense forests and dramatic cliffs high above the sea that seem worlds away.

This year, though, the detachment has gotten to be a bit much.

On Tuesday, a heap of dirt and rocks a quarter-mile wide lay across Highway 1 near the tiny community of Gorda (Monterey County), three days after the biggest landslide that locals can remember became just the latest to bury the region and its roads in a mess of mud, cutting off homes and businesses from the outside.

The area, ravaged by fire during the historic drought, is now experiencing the fallout of this year’s record rainstorms.

While the northern half of Big Sur is largely in the clear and open to the public down to the washed-out Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, the southern stretch remains menaced by soggy hillsides that threaten to slip even further. Full recovery may be a long way off.

 

“I love being down here because we’re away from the rat race,” said Mike Handy, 26, whose family owns and operates Treebones Resort, an upscale camping retreat and spa that sits between two large sections of Highway 1 closed by slides and is accessible only by a narrow, winding road from the east.

“But it’s gotten frustrating,” he said. “It’s just been one thing after another and so inconvenient to get around.”

To drive for groceries, about 30 miles to the south on Highway 1, Handy has to take Nacimiento-Fergusson Road in what amounts to a three-hour detour. To visit his girlfriend in Carmel, about 60 miles to the north, it’s the same way out and a three-hour trip in the other direction.

“I tell people our relationship has turned into a long-distance thing,” he said.

While Treebones Resort remains open, visitors must stomach the same back-roads journey as Handy.

Saturday’s landslide struck a stretch of oceanfront highway at Mud Creek on Big Sur’s southern end, which — fortunately — was already closed due to slides. No one was injured by the million-plus tons of debris that rained down.

But the blast of mud is certain to delay the scheduled mid-June opening of Highway 1 between Gorda and Ragged Point, which has been choked by intermittent landslides since January.

The California Department of Transportation said Tuesday that crews haven’t yet thoroughly evaluated damage at the new slide, about 9 miles north of the Monterey-San Luis Obispo county line. Dirt and rock there is still moving, and getting in is dangerous, officials said.

“It would be like coming home and your house is torn up,” said Caltrans spokeswoman Susana Cruz. “Where do you even start? This is huge.”

Caltrans had been working for months to clear the road of several smaller slides, even opening it at certain times of the day to allow traffic to get through. But last week, crews pulled out of the area when more mud began to trickle down from the hills above and workers felt threatened. One crew member reported getting hit in the face by a rock.

In this aerial photo taken Monday, May 22, 2017 provided by John Madonna showing a massive landslide along California's coastal Highway 1 that has buried the road under a 40-foot layer of rock and dirt. A swath of the hillside gave way in an area called Mud Creek on Saturday, May 20, covering about one-third of a mile, half a kilometer, of road and changing the Big Sur coastline. (John Madonna via AP) Photo: John Madonna, Associated Press

Photo: John Madonna, Associated Press

In this aerial photo taken Monday, May 22, 2017 provided by John Madonna showing a massive landslide along California’s coastal Highway 1 that has buried the road under a 40-foot layer of rock and dirt. A swath of the hillside gave way in an area called Mud Creek on Saturday, May 20, covering about one-third of a mile, half a kilometer, of road and changing the Big Sur coastline. (John Madonna via AP)
In this aerial photo taken Monday, May 22, 2017 provided by John…

“We’re glad nobody was there” during the big slide, Cruz said. “It could have been really catastrophic if someone was around.”

Locals say the new avalanche rivals a notorious slide in 1983 that covered Highway 1 to the north at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. That mass of debris took 14 months to clear.

While Caltrans officials can’t yet project when the new slide might be removed, they’re still on track to begin opening the other closed section of road, between Limekiln State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to the north, at the end of June, with complete access restored when the Pfieffer Canyon Bridge is repaired at the end of September.

Until then, a 10-mile stretch of Highway 1 between the two closures is accessible only via Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

“As my grandmother used to say, you have to be a rugged individual to sustain a lifestyle here,” said Kirk Gafill, a co-owner and general manager of the landmark Nepenthe Restaurant, which sits along a closed section of the highway. “I think a lot of us are starting to figure out how rugged we are — or not.”

Nepenthe shut down for more than a month after the Pfieffer Canyon Bridge, just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, slipped several feet in February when storms oversaturated the underlying soil.

Although the usually popular restaurant and gift shop can’t be accessed by Highway 1, Gafill has reopened in order to accommodate local residents as well as guests at the Post Ranch Inn, where visitors are being flown in by helicopter.

Business at Nepenthe, though, is but a fraction of what it would normally be this time of year, Gafill said, and most of his 150 employees aren’t working. Other hotels and restaurants along Big Sur’s southern stretch have shut down entirely, he noted, absorbing a financial blow that may be hard to recover from.

With Gafill’s family unable to leave their home by car, his wife moved with their son temporarily to the Monterey Peninsula so he could continue his freshman year of high school.

“This is on a scale that completely dwarfs previous winter-closure periods we’ve experienced,” Gafill said. “We could see a very different landscape of who’s living here and what businesses are here.”

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