The Cambrian

Rain, flooding did plenty of damage in Cambria

Floodwaters race down Santa Rosa Creek.
Floodwaters race down Santa Rosa Creek. Special to The Cambrian

What a set of storms!

North Coast residents, businesses and agencies went into clean-up/mop-up/fix-up modes Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 9 and 10, during the brief respites between and after a series of strong winter storms that hammered the area with lots of rain and wind. More rain was expected to fall off and on through Thursday, according to various forecasts.

On Sunday into early Monday, between 1.5 and 6 inches or more of rain fell within about 24 hours, depending on the area. As usual, the Rocky Butte area northeast of San Simeon got the most rainfall. The Red Mountain area near there was drenched with more than 8 inches from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9. That high-altitude spot has amassed about 35 inches of rainfall since the July 1 start of rainfall season.

This time, however, even lower-lying areas got heavily dowsed. For instance, a Park Hill gauge on Huntington Road recorded 6.87 inches of rainfall from Jan. 2 through Jan. 10, with some precipitation recorded on every one of those nine days.

Various North Coast roadways, including Highway 1, Santa Rosa Creek Road and some residential and downtown streets took a beating during the storms.

According to various sources, portions of Santa Rosa Creek Road collapsed or sagged near Coast Union High School and the McCall and Linn’s ranches.

Landslides closed Highway 41 and several portions of Highway 1 north of San Simeon/Ragged Point. Smaller flows of mud, rocks, brush and trees came down on Main Street, on Highway 1 south toward Morro Bay and in other areas. One mudslide trapped an ambulance at the Cambria Community Healthcare District ’s Main Street station. Some trees fell (although perhaps not as many as some had anticipated), and power was out briefly in a few areas.

There was so much runoff Tuesday that the Santa Rosa Creek mouth had split in two, with half flowing in a more northerly direction and the other half flowing southward into the sea. There was so much silt, sand and debris piled up on the creek’s normal course and exit to the ocean that the flow apparently had to reroute.

Cambria Community Services District water personnel have been juggling sources for the community’s supply, following two floods at the district’s well field along San Simeon Creek. A fierce storm that hit the area Jan. 3 caused a biosolids pump to fail at the wastewater treatment plant, sending strong odors into some West Village, Park Hill and Happy Hill neighborhoods.

Flooding once again hit the Old Cambria Marketplace (Shell Station) at the north end of West Village. Sections of the Santa Rosa Creek Trail washed out, and some portions were still flooded Tuesday. Two Fiscalini Ranch Preserve trails are closed because of hazardous conditions.

And, for the second time in five days, the storm flooded the iconic Pinedorado Grounds near the Veterans Memorial Building on Main Street. The Cambria Lions Club, which owns the grounds, plans a post-flood work party there starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, and members encourage participation by anybody who is willing and able to help clean up the area.

A couple of flash-flood warning alerts startled residents who were automatically notified via cellphone message that flooding could be imminent in the Hearst Castle and Lake Nacimiento areas affected by the Chimney Fire.

Cleanup and repairs continued Tuesday on various fronts, with work hastened by the knowledge that other storms were approaching. And a flurry of update emails flew between governmental management, staffers and others, to keep people as up to date as possible about the rapidly changing circumstances.


Cambria Fire Department officials say sand is available at Shamel Park, Lampton Park and the Rodeo Grounds area, but people will need to bring their own sandbags.

“This is a good time to check your ‘go bag’ of things you’d need to take with you in an emergency and have that bag by the door, in case of flooding or falling trees,” said Shirley Bianchi, chairwoman of the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group.

People who live in a flood-prone area should consider moving other valuables to the top story or attic of their homes.

Road impacts

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, with more rain predicted, Fire Chief William Hollingsworth reported by email that “the most notable issue at this point is the closure of Santa Rosa Creek Road. Directly past the high school, a large area of the roadway washed out. County Roads completed a temporary patch yesterday, however, it has sunk an additional 6 inches overnight. They have put road base on the other side of the roadway and it is passable as one lane (but) only to emergency and local traffic.

“Farther out, between McCall’s Farm and Linn’s Farm, more than half the roadway washed out, and it is not passable at all. County Roads has been notified of this, and they are working to repair it.”

The latter roadway-failure area, about a half a football field long, had asphalt overhanging an area of open space a couple of feet underneath the road, which had been carved away by the creek waters.

In Hollingsworth’s Monday morning report about other areas, he said, “the west end of town did receive the most significant flooding problems, with water rising up to the pumps at the Shell station. Some mud and roadway flooding occurred on Sheffield Street and Wall Street, but no damage (was) reported.

“Madison Street suffered some undercut damage at the dead end, up against the ranch. And part of the hillside behind the ambulance station came down and took out their retaining wall. Nobody was injured and no damage occurred to their fleet; however, until the situation can be resolved, and due to related safety concerns, the crews have temporarily been relocated to Park Hill.”

Hollingsworth said he didn’t get any callouts from the crew Tuesday night, despite the heavy rain and stiff winds that put Cambria in the eye of the storm for a time, according to Facebook postings by meteorologist Lindsey. The fire crew was out early Wednesday morning, dealing with a downed tree that was blocking traffic at Pickwick Lane and Green Street.

The fire chief said he continues to check on road conditions throughout the area, including and especially on Santa Rosa Creek Road. He said the problem spot on Santa Rosa Creek Road by the high school “sank another couple of inches” Tuesday, and county road crews continue working on it. However, those interim repairs “are only a patch job until it stops raining.”

Highway 1 has been closed off and on throughout the recent series of storms, with landslides and falling trees causing problems for miles. Monday, a Caltrans alert advised that the notoriously slide-prone highway “is closed from Ragged Point (San Luis Obispo County) to 2 miles south of Big Sur (Monterey County)” because of mud slides.

Motorists are advised to use an alternate route.

Midday Tuesday, Caltrans opened the highway for brief periods, but only for residents, emergency vehicles and department visitors. By Wednesday morning, according to a spokesperson, things were looking “brighter,” despite there still being slides at several locations. Every two hours as conditions allowed, Caltrans was to open the roadway for 15 minutes at a time, to accommodate local traffic only through the Fernwood closure area. Locals also had highway access from Ragged Point to Limekiln/Pitkins. For the public, however, at press deadline, Highway 1 remained closed from Ragged Point to about a mile north of Big Sur.

Services districts

Cambria Community Services District’s San Simeon Creek well field was flooded Jan. 3, 8 and 9, with the first deluge being the most serious.

Flood waters then came too close to one district well, and according to state regulations, water from that well couldn’t be provided to customers until the well casing was disinfected, tested and proclaimed to be safe for drinking.

In a Jan. 5 email interview, district General Manager Jerry Gruber wrote that if surface water or creek water were to infiltrate the casing of a well, “we would have to chlorinate the well and take bacteriological sample to make sure the well water is safe to drink prior to putting back on line for human consumption. Fortunately this did not occur.”

At that time, the district was operating well SS2 in the San Simeon field, and wells SS1 and SS3 were off “and were not impacted by the rising creek.”

After the storm Jan. 8 and 9, water supervisor Jason Buhl wrote that the field received 2 inches of rain, and “part of the well field did get flooded. We sustained a little bit of damage to part of the berm/road near SS3. There was and is flooding near and below SS3. Luckily, no water has entered any of the well sites.”

Buhl explained Tuesday that the department was providing water from the SS2 well.

“The flooded area was at least 200 to 300 feet away from SS2.” He said if the flooding gets within 150 feet of SS2, staff will shut off that well, and the district will provide the community’s water from the SR4 well, near Leffingwell High School on Santa Rosa Creek.

Gruber said the wastewater treatment plant did not overflow, despite the heavy rain. “We have three large holding ponds on site that have so far been able to handle the additional flow. Also, we did not experience any sanitary sewer overflows from our 10 lift stations.”

Carlos Mendoza, resources-facilities supervisor, said the worst storm damage so far was to the Santa Rosa Creek Trail and East trail leading to the highway, and those trails are closed, with barricades in the trailheads advising of the closures.

One of the erosion-control barriers installed several years ago on the west part of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve was damaged. “The water came in so hard that it undercut the stacked logs,” and “there is now a huge hole there,” Mendoza said. “There is nothing we can do at this point,” but the topic should stay near the top of the list for tasks to do this summer, after things dry out.

Other areas of concern on the ranch include the washed-out wooden bridge connecting the ranch with the highway, erosion in the middle of the Huntington Trail and a tree that fell behind the house on East Ranch.

Gruber noted that staff “is tired, they have worked long hours. However, they rock!”

Other than a few downed branches, the storm didn’t appear to hamper San Simeon Community Services District operations, according to Renee Samaniego-Osborne of Grace Environmental Services, which manages the district.

Ambulance station

In town Monday morning, ambulance crews busily moved themselves and two ambulances to a home near Shamel Park to get them away from potential harm, according to health care district administrator Bob Sayers.

He told his board members in a Tuesday morning email that staff was trying to find a rental unit for a longer-term temporary solution.

“I have been in discussions with the geotechnical engineer this morning,” Sayers said, “and he believes for a quick short-term fix, not permanent fix, we should bring a backhoe in to remove excess mudslide and try and reduce the slope of the lower hillside.”

The engineer will submit a proposal, Sayers said. “He would supervise the work and also test for hill stability. I also will work on cutting the trees that are a threat to our ambulance station on the hillside. … We will be working on these issues for the next several days, keeping our operation running as efficiently as possible.”

The ambulance that was trapped by the hillside’s retaining wall was, of course, the newest unit in the fleet. “It’s fully operational, and only had one little dent,” he said.

Jason Melendy, the district’s interim operations manager, updated Sayers and the board by email Tuesday, saying of his response-area evaluation that the Santa Rosa Creek Road collapse area “is almost impassible,” and that even with the county bringing in gravel “to allow cars to travel somewhat around this sag in the roadway (approximately 1 foot), Chief Hollingsworth believes (if the roadway sags any more), this could be impassible by fire engines and ambulances not equipped with 4X4.”

Of the washout near the McCall and Linn’s ranches, Melendy said “half the roadway is completely washed away, and cars are now getting stuck in the mud (when) attempting to travel around these locations. Logistically, this creates a significant challenge for our crews to access these residences between the high school and the Linn’s area.”

He said he thinks access to the Main Street ambulance station should be limited.

“For us to ensure proper safety measures and factual reassurance that the hillside is safe, we will need soil testing, which will take several weeks.” Melendy said he believes the short-term rental should be for at least a month to ensure crews and equipment are safe.

He was to confer with Caltrans crews at Ragged Point to determine what emergency-vehicle access will be as the workers clear landslides. “There are many residences up there that are only 4X4-accessible.”

Shell station

Eric Johnson at the Shell station said the water “came up to within 3 feet of the front door,” evoking memories of the massive flood March 9-10,1995, in which runoff rose to near the top of the pump-island awnings and flooded buildings all the way to the Veterans Memorial Building. The station also flooded in 2011.

The flood prompted county officials to eventually install an elaborate flood-control system for the area. When the rains hit in earnest Wednesday afternoon and flap valves closed between the flooding creek and the rising tide, county workers (a couple of them in wetsuits) came to check the system and work on it.

Johnson said the water started rising about 8 p.m. Sunday, and he estimated that the county worker arrived about 10:45 p.m. to start the flood-control pump.

“The good news is the pump works,” Johnson said.

Monday morning, the station’s pumps were closed, because “water got down on top of our tanks, tripping our sensors.” Workers are “pumping the water off the tanks. We’ll push some mud, and then we’re good to go.”

Hearst Castle and Hearst Ranch

Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes Hearst Castle, said Monday that some branches fell during the storms, but he got regular reports from his staff about all incidents, “I didn’t get any phone calls, and that was a good thing.”

Park maintenance staffers are doing assessments in other parks, he said.

Benjamin Higgins, Hearst Ranch director of agricultural operations, said in an email interview Tuesday, “So far, so good. We have a few trees down and roads washed out, but no major flooding or buildings damaged. We are, so far, faring better than one would imagine given the size of this storm system. Of course there are still many areas of the ranch which are inaccessible due to flowing water, so a full assessment isn’t possible until things dry out a bit.”

American Legion club, Pinedorado

Meanwhile on Monday, Scott Wright busily mopped up the flooding in American Legion Post No. 432’s club at the Veterans Memorial Building, according to bar manager Lesli Murdoch. She said 1 to 2 inches of water had flowed into the kitchen and bar areas.

Heavy storm runoff apparently drains down into that area from the PineKnolls hill, the Veterans Memorial Building’s parking lot, a ditch in the Caltrans right of way between the grounds and Highway 1 and from drains that dump rainwater into the ditch.

The earlier flooding of the Pinedorado Grounds (Jan. 3) reached the door of the club, she said, which triggered some aggressive sandbagging by Legion members and volunteers from the community and local Scout troops. CCSD staffers also provided some sandbags.