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A 30-mile commute now takes 3 hours: Impacts of Hwy. 1 Mud Creek Slide closure hit hard

Crews build rock seawall at Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur

Get an up-close look at the nearly completed seawall protecting the bottom of the Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur, California.
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Get an up-close look at the nearly completed seawall protecting the bottom of the Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur, California.

When landslides shut down part of Highway 1 between Cambria and Carmel, lives change and get more complicated.

When the closure lasts more than a year, those complications can multiply exponentially.

A year ago, more than 5 million cubic yards of dirt, rocks and other debris slid onto a quarter-mile stretch of the roadway north of Salmon Creek, burying and destroying the pavement. The hillside continued to slide for months, but crews are working dawn to dusk, seven days a week, to reopen the internationally renowned scenic stretch of Highway 1.

Caltrans now expects that by mid-September the $54 million project to build a new road on top of the landslide material will be finished enough to reopen the highway segment.

And that can’t come soon enough for a whole bunch of people.

Highway 1 at Mud Creek in Big Sur remains closed as “significant” amounts of dirt and rock continue to slide down the slope from above. This video taken from a Monterey County Sheriff's Office airplane shows the massive slide, which "went from bad

Faces of the slide

Susan “Suzi” Perry lives in Cambria’s Happy Hill neighborhood. But for 15 years, she’s been the only five-day-a-week employee at the tiny, four-day-a-week Pacific Valley School, about 5 miles north of Gorda in Monterey County.

Her previous commute of about 37 miles is now approximately three times as long and can take up to three hours. She now has drive from Gorda down Highway 1 to Highway 46 south of Cambria, then to Highway 101, through the Fort Hunter Liggett military base and over the Santa Lucia range via Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to get to school.

She’s not commuting daily now; instead, Perry stays with a teacher who lives near the school and goes home for her days off.

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Brothers Rio and Sekoya Sleeth live two miles from the massive Mud Creek landslide across and atop Highway 1. Their school is on the other side of the slide. Theirs is just one of many less-obvious stories of adjustments and difficulties caused by the slide. David Sleeth Courtesy

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Brothers Rio and Sekoya (pictured) Sleeth live two miles from the massive Mud Creek landslide across and atop Highway 1. Their school is on the other side of the slide. Theirs is just one of many less-obvious stories of adjustments and difficulties caused by the slide. David Sleeth Courtesy

Rio and Sekoya Sleeth, respectively 16 and 14 years old who live on Gorda Mountain with their family a few miles to the south of the slide, have had to adapt a lot in the past year as students at Pacific Valley School.

According to their artist dad, David Sleeth, the young men do most of their assignments online now, which can be tricky, because their home is off the grid. They meet regularly in Cambria with teacher Karen Beecher, staying with a family friend.

The hardest part for the boys, David Sleeth said, is the lack of social interaction, even though that interaction now would be with only nine other students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Big Sur resident Kate Novoa is also known as “Big Sur Kate” to the legions of area residents who follow her blog.

She said a serious economic aspect of the Mud Creek closure is a byproduct of everyday life.

“We are having to shell out money for motels often,” she said. “Our errands just cannot be done in one day, even a very long one, so everything is combined and overnight trips are planned.”

That’s what paralegal Anneliese Agren, who lives in the hills about 11 miles north of the San Luis Obispo/Monterey county line, had to do May 16 through 18.

She usually works at home, but many of her doctors, veterinarian, errands and other things on her “to do” list are south of the slide. Her jam-packed schedule included mail pickup at Cambria Business Center, doctor visits, going to Arroyo Grande, having new eyeglasses fitted, grocery and supply shopping and multiple trips to a veterinarian (her pug-beagle pups Meatball and Maggie needed dental work, and Meatball had his regular checkup for mast-cell tumors).

05-21-18 anneliese on hike c.jpg
Anneliese Agren is one of many Big Sur residents who regularly do errands and have appointments in Cambria and other parts of San Luis Obispo County even though they live north of the big Mud Creek landslide that has kept Highway 1 closed for more than a year. Now, those “to-do” trips take a long much longer and happen much less frequently, even for veterinarian appointments for Agren’s pug-beagle pups Meatball and Maggie. Courtesy

Novoa said driving north to Monterey is nearly as hard, because of “horrific tourist traffic” that’s been slowed by road construction. Those trips “also often involve overnight stays in order to be able to accomplish all that must be done in a month. Whatever can be done online, is.”

She actually has ordered a Sprinter van “into which I will put a bed so that I can spend the night, if necessary during long town runs.”

Need an ambulance?

“Needless to say, access to emergency services is slow and difficult,” longtime area artist Peter Fels said.

He lives 6 miles south of Mud Creek, so the Cambria Community Healthcare District ambulance can still respond to his house, if necessary.

North of the slide, patients are served by Big Sur’s medical support, cliff rescue and a volunteer fire department and emergency medical response team, and a locally-based ambulance service, according to bigsurcalifornia.org.

It’s about 40 miles from central Big Sur to the slide area. Cambria ambulances unable to go north past the slide has had an impact on patients and the Cambria Community Healthcare District itself.

Take a drive across the Mud Creek Slide in Big Sur, where Caltrans is rebuilding Highway 1 after a landslide wiped out the famous roadway in 2017. (Video taken in January 2018.)

The highway closure has been among recent factors to hit the healthcare district’s budget, according to administrator Bob Sayers.

Monterey County contracts with the district to provide emergency medical response quite a distance north of the county line on Highway 1.

The county also pays the district an additional $1,500 per call in that area.

Some of the district’s short-term budget shortfall could be because the district can’t respond to calls north of the Mud Creek slide now.

Many of those calls are to assist people injured in accidents, Sayers said, adding that those patients usually are covered by private insurance, which pays $3,000 to take a patient to the hospital, as opposed to Medicare or Medic-Aid, which pays only $580 per transport.

According to a 3-2 Board of Trustees vote taken May 16, the agency likely will put a tax-increase proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot, hoping to raise an estimated $300,000 annually for infrastructure maintenance/repairs and ambulance replacement.

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'Fire season is upon us'

For now, fire suppression as far north as Salmon Creek also comes from the south, likely from Cal Fire’s Cambria station.

According to Cal Fire Monterey, those to the north of the closure must rely on the volunteer Big Sur Fire, based north of Lucia, and the Cal Fire Carmel Highlands station.

Agren said fire is what everybody is dreading this year, which is why after their exhausting, multi-day whirlwind errand trip, she spent the next few days clearing weeds at her home.

“Fire season is upon us,” she wrote. “Everyone up here is freaked out that there could be a fire this summer because there are so many campers camping in the backcountry and on the dirt roads and Forest Service hasn’t issued a ‘no campfire’ statement. … So, we’ve worked all weekend on 100 feet of defensible space.”

She said permitted backyard burning for residents ended April 30.

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Hitting the bottom line

Of course, the closure of Highway 1 for a year has hit the bottom line of tourist-oriented businesses.

The shutdown of the north-south traveler conduit along the scenic byway also has drastically affected suppliers and employees of those businesses.

Many of their employees have fewer work hours per week, or no local job at all. Some workers have had to move out of the area to support themselves and their families. They could no longer afford to live in the area they love.

Perry said the Pacific Valley School cook and her family had to leave the home they’d built on Gorda Mountain because of the commute.

Incomes and routes for people with tourism-related occupations also have been truncated these days, such as for those who customarily deliver grocery supplies, beverages and fuel to the area cut off from the south.

Tour buses that tote sightseers through the scenic oceanfront area can’t get through for now.

They’re all faced with the problems of living near or getting through Mother Nature’s temporary cul de sac.

But Agren said she doesn’t want to complain.

“I have it easy” compared to Perry and many others,” she said. “Although I was absolutely depressed and freaked out last year when Mud Creek closed Highway 1, I do realize this was my choice to move here, and highway closures (are) a part of living here. Adaptability is sorely needed.”

Mud Creek stats

How much of the hillside slid onto Highway 1 at Mud Creek on May 20? More than 5 million cubic yards of material, reportedly the largest landslide in California highway history.

Cost to build a new highway on top of the landslide: Caltrans’ current estimate is $54 million.

When will it reopen? Caltrans’ current estimate is mid-September, although, according to agency spokesperson Susana Cruz, “It’s expected that even after the highway is reopened, intermittent lane closures and roadwork may continue.”

How many trucks going up and down Highway 1 daily to and from the slide area? Up to 50.

How much equipment is there? An average of 25 pieces of equipment, “plus trucks and drivers that haul material to the site, large rock for rock revetment, selected fill material for hilficker baskets, etc.,” said Cruz.

How many people work on site? An average of 35.

How long do crews work each day on site? With longer days now, crews are working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Source: Caltrans

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