The Cambrian

Storm damage mounts on North Coast; Big Sur-area bridge failing

Cracks and buckling concrete demonstrate why Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge south of Big Sur has been closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Cracks and buckling concrete demonstrate why Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge south of Big Sur has been closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Special to The Cambrian

What a winter! The recent wild weather has been the topic du jour on the North Coast, no surprise given the amount of rainfall, the ferocity of the wind, the number of fallen trees and runoff-damaged roadways and the sheer tenacity of the “atmospheric river” storm track that has hammered a much of California at the outset of 2017.

Damage ranged from tree-crunched homes, mudslides and roadways eaten away by runoff to continuing damage to a Highway 1 bridge near Big Sur that Caltrans officials said is not repairable. That means the closure of the challenging but beautiful scenic byway between Ragged Point and Carmel likely will be a long one.

As of late Tuesday, Feb. 21, according to Caltrans, the full closure area on Highway 1 ranged from Ragged Point to just south of Palo Colorado, about 61 miles north of the Monterey County line. Locals only may travel in a truck between Ragged Point and Lucia, or from the north, as far south as just before the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge.

And, according to forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, another rainstorm is due Saturday and all day Sunday, Feb. 25 and 26, with showers possible through the following Tuesday.


In the most recent five-day spate of storms — from Thursday, Feb. 16 through Tuesday, Feb. 21 — some North Coast reporting stations were doused with about 5 inches of rainfall, give or take a few tenths. Rocky Butte, northeast of San Simeon, was drenched with more than 10 inches of rain during that period, and 73.56 inches for the rain season through Tuesday, Feb. 21 (according to PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey, who said the season normal there is 33.2 inches.).

According to onsite gauges, wind gusts reportedly peaked in the 60-to-70 mph range at Hearst Castle, in the high 50s in the Red Mountain area off San Simeon Creek Road and the high 40s on Marine Terrace.

As the most recent storm set came in on the heels of the previous sieges Feb. 2 through Feb. 7, some sections of saturated soil just gave up to the gravitational pull and slid. The roots of some trees no longer had anything solid to cling to, so the wind and/or other falling trees pushed them over or the trees simply fell under their own weight and instability.

The results were a mess in many cases, although it could have been much worse overall. As those trees fell, electricity went out, homes were hit, mud and rocks slid and slipped, and the wind blew and blew. Creeks rose and rushed. Some roads were closed, and wary people huddled in homes and hoped the onslaught would end soon.

According to Fire Chief William Hollingsworth, from Feb. 17 through 20, Cambria Fire Department crews were dispatched to 28 emergencies that included four calls for trees that had fallen into or onto homes, eight calls for power lines taken down or hit by falling trees, seven calls because downed trees were blocking roadways or other access points and two mud slides. Other crews from County Public Works, Cal Fire and other agencies also responded to incidents.


Some people were in crisis mode. For instance, Scott Wright said he and wife Patty were told to evacuate quickly from the home they rent on Pineknolls Drive.

“The hillside in front of our house where the stairs go up just slid,” he said about 12:30 p.m. Friday. “It cut off the (lateral) sewer lines to our house and our landlord’s house, so they’re going to have to cut off our electricity, the Fire Department said.”

Wright’s very visible, circa 1977 home is on the steep hill overlooking Main Street and the Veterans Memorial Building.

Highway 1 bridge

As of Tuesday night, Caltrans declared that the damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, 45.5 miles north of the Monterey County line, could not be fixed.

Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said in an email interview that the agency “has declared that the bridge is not repairable due to the horizontal and vertical fractures on this structure.” He said the agency “is exploring its options. Caltrans engineers will continue to explore the condition of the soil in the coming weeks beneath the bridge in order to gain further information on how to proceed from this point.”

The decision not to repair the bridge probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had tracked the damage first reported earlier this month by a homeless person. One of the bridge’s support pillars was confirmed to be cracked and tilting. Later, in the canyon around the bridge, huge boulders and large redwood trees were “exploding” as they cascaded into the area below, according to an area resident. In recent days, area residents said they felt the bridge was in danger of collapsing.

Caltrans engineers had been assessing the situation daily or even more often, and the news was getting increasingly bleak. As more slides happened and clearing work progressed, the closure areas continued to change. Some people were trapped between the two closure points, and Monterey County officials were determining how to get them out or provide emergency care if it was needed.

On Sunday night, Caltrans officials had reported via email and an e-blast through the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce that the bridge had moved 7 inches in the previous 24 hours. People were to avoid the area, period.


Back in Cambria, various roads were blocked for a time. Among them were the Burton Drive hill near Village Lane and Burton between Highway 1 and Ardath Drive, PineKnolls and Hillcrest drives, Suffolk Street, Sunbury Avenue, Bradford and Wilcombe roads and Avon Avenue between Ardath Drive and Wales Road, according to officials from County Public Works and the Cambria Community Services District, residents and others.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Avon remained closed.

At least four sections of Santa Rosa Creek Road were limited to one lane, including in a new area of concern six miles east of Main Street, Dave Flynn, deputy director of Public Works said Friday.

He said that, as of that afternoon, the department had already spent or expected to spend close to $3 million on storm repairs, or about 40 percent of the $7 million in funds the department had for the entire year’s roadwork countywide.

Too much water wound up in other spots, too. Again, runoff flooded the Pinedorado grounds near the Veterans Memorial Building. And two low-lying meadows just south of Cambria — colloquially referred to during the rainy season as “the Cambria lakes” — were full enough to be within a few splashes of Highway 1.

State Parks

Hearst Castle was closed all day Friday and Sunday, Feb. 17 and 19, in response to safety concerns triggered by wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph and heavy rain, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of State Park district that includes the castle.

In a phone interview, he said flooding also caused the closure of about 25 campsites at the San Simeon campground.

Falat said portions of Morro Bay State Park remain closed. Five large trees went down during the storms, according to a state parks media release, and there were nearly 100 incidents of large falling limbs. Camping reservations have been suspended through March 8. Reserve America is to contact people who have reservations between now and then.

Falat said the park’s museum and golf course reopened Tuesday, but Lower State Park Road is closed temporarily between South Bay Boulevard and the campground due to rising waters and erosion from Chorro Creek. Lower State Park Road is open at the north end from the city of Morro Bay to allow access to the Inn at Morro Bay, the Museum of Natural History, marina parking lot, golf course and the Bayside Café, which are open.

An earlier media release saying that all the state parks in the district had been closed was sent in error and was incorrect, Falat said.

For the first time in nearly six years, Santa Margarita Lake is full and spilling over into the Salinas River. Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of SLO County Public Works, talks on Feb. 8, 2017, about the role of the lake, also known as the Salina

Other areas

Damage was rampant throughout many areas of the state, according to media reports and witnesses’ social-media postings. Dams and spillways were threatening to overflow or collapse. A levee was breached in San Joaquin County. Rivers were overflowing their banks, reservoirs were overfull, and those spillways were carrying the excess into areas not used to coping with that much water.

Sections of busy freeways, including Highway 101 near Corte Madera, were flooded or failing.

A section of Highway 50 toward South Lake Tahoe was disintegrating.

Highway 41 toward Yosemite was closed at Fish Camp because the shoulder there was collapsing.

A huge redwood tree that fell across all four lanes of Highway 17 threatened to block rush hour traffic until some motorists with chain saws got out of their cars and began cutting up the trunk while others moved the logs and brush to the road’s edge. With the help of emergency crews, both sides of the highway reportedly were cleared within an hour and a half.

Evacuations were common, including in the Coyote Creek area of San Jose. Flash flood warnings were issued for areas as far flung as the Stockton-Manteca-Tracy area, San Diego, the Coachella Valley and parts of Nevada.

What’s ahead?

It’s not over yet.

Meteorologist Lindsey said in his forecast Wednesday morning that, after a few dry, mostly clear days, a strong low-pressure system will drop out of the north this weekend, producing gale-force southerly winds (39 to 54 mph, gusting to 60 mph), moderate to heavy rain and low elevation snowfall in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the higher peaks of the Central Coast. He predicted that snow levels could reach as low as 3,500 feet by Monday morning.

After a glut of storms in San Luis Obispo County, a swelling Atascadero Creek is eating away at the earth underneath this home.

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