BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA – A massive landslide that went into the Pacific Ocean is the latest natural disaster to hit a California community that relies heavily on an iconic coastal highway and tourism to survive.
The weekend slide in Big Sur buried a portion of Highway 1 under a 12-meter layer of rock and dirt and changed the coastline below to include what now looks like a rounded skirt hem, Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Transportation, said Tuesday.
More than 1 million tons of rock and dirt tumbled down a saturated slope in an area called Mud Creek. The slide covers a 400-meter stretch of Highway 1, and authorities have no estimate on when it might reopen. The area remains unstable.
“We haven’t been able to go up there and assess. It’s still moving,” Cruz said. “We have geologists and engineers who are going to check it out this week to see how do we pick up the pieces.”
It’s the largest mudslide she knows of in the state’s history, she said. “It’s one of a kind,” Cruz said.
Narrow, windy Highway 1 through Big Sur is a major tourist draw, attracting visitors to serene groves of redwoods, beaches and the highway’s dramatic oceanside scenery between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But it’s also had its share of damage from Mother Nature.
The state already had closed that part of Highway 1 to repair buckled pavement and remove debris after an earlier slide triggered by one of California’s rainiest winters in decades. Authorities removed work crews from the area last week after realizing that saturated soil in that area was increasingly unstable, Cruz said.
Last year, a wildfire burned for nearly three months in the Los Padres National Forest and on private land, sparked by an illegal campfire. Thousands of visitors were shut out from signature state parks and the businesses that cater to those tourists.
The rough winter closed at least two other stretches of road in the area, forcing some resorts to shut down and others to use helicopters to ferry in supplies and guests.
Kirk Gafill, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and owner of the historic Nepenthe Restaurant, said the slide may prove a blessing, stabilizing land that Caltrans was working to shore up.
On the other hand, he acknowledges his theory may be wishful thinking.
“There’s no question if you live and own a business in Big Sur, you live in a very dramatic landscape and we know historically, whether it’s fire or a mudslide or a landslide from one year to the next it’s not very predictable,” said Gafill, whose restaurant is serving two to three dozen local diners a day rather than the 600 to 1,000 typical for this time of year.
Gafill said repairing this landslide is not as critical for business as the re-opening of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, a span on Highway 1 that was damaged from heavy rain in January and February. The new span is scheduled to open in September.
Kurt Mayer, who owns Big Sur Tap House, was also taking news of the slide in stride. He said Tuesday he wouldn’t trade in his work location for somewhere safer.
“We’re all going to make it, I’m pretty sure,” he said. “Big Sur can scare some people, and those people usually come and go pretty quickly. And those who can hang, they’re still there and they’ll continue to be there.”