Recently a friend concerned about the upcoming El Niño mailed me to ask what plans the community or county had prior to the last El Niño in 1997-98. My husband, Bill, and I thought and thought, and finally decided there had been no firm plans.
At the time, I was a member of the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission. I don’t remember what agency applied to the county for a permit to remove the willow trees (or at least cut them back) in Santa Rosa Creek between the Highway 1 Bridge and the Windsor Bridge, and between the bridge and the ocean.
After much discussion, the representative from County Engineering (now Public Works) convinced the rest of the commission that it wasn’t necessary to trim back the willows because when the water came, they would just lie down as the water went over them.
Not so! The stream flow became quite muddy, with tree trunks, branches and other natural detritus floating along, and all of this “stuff” got hung up in the willows, forming a dam. The stream flow had to find a way around the dam and very nearly washed out the sewer plant, and did wash away a sizeable chunk of the county park.
The West Village was flooded under many feet of water for several days.
The water level in the creek was so high that it broke away the roadway “apron” leading to the Windsor Bridge, taking with it the sewer and water lines underneath. Residents of Park Hill were cut off, with no route off of or onto the hill, and were without sewer facilities for at least 24 hours, if not more.
Residential water supplies were also cut off. To provide drinking water to Park Hill residents, citizens and officials formed a line to pass water bottles across the bridge, which was closed to vehicles. Fortunately fire or ambulance crews had set up on Park Hill before the apron collapsed, since there was no way in to Park Hill.
It was not a pleasant time for the residents, and many officials, emergency crews and volunteers worked around the clock for several days.
When it came time to approve the conservation easement on what is now the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, I had been elected to the Board of Supervisors, and I readily approved an emergency access road from Park Hill to the Marine Terrace.
At the time, the road crew districts were bounded from north to south, so that during the flood event, the coastal crews were working 24/7 clearing trees and mud off of both town as well as rural roads the length of the county, while the interior crews were idle. For about 24 hours, Cambria was closed off from the outside world. Highway 1 north was closed because of massive rockslides (as usual), Santa Rosa Creek Road had nearly washed out, and Highway 1 south was closed due to mudslides.
San Simeon Creek Road is not a through road, as is Santa Rosa Creek Road. So much mud had come down off of the hills in one location that the road was impassable. The foreman on one of the ranches brought his loader down and scraped a one-lane passage. Fortunately, it was on a straight stretch, and we could stop and wait if someone was coming.
Now, the community is very fortunate to have the Community Emergency Response Team to help, the county road crew districts are now formed west to east, so that the eastern crews can respond over here, or vice versa, more easily.
The configuration of the bridge has been changed to protect the sewer and water lines, and massive pumps have been installed at the western edge of West Village to pump out floodwater.
The area will flood, but the water will be pumped out much quicker.
There will be much more information made available ahead of time for residents, so they’ll know what to do to live somewhat comfortably if they cannot leave their homes because of blocked roads, with things like canned goods and a manual can opener; batteries for flashlights; and, if possible, a home generator.
Also, old-style landline telephones, preferably touch tone, are very helpful when the power is out, as it will be.
Shirley Bianchi is a Cambria resident and former member of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. She serves as chairwoman of the Fire Safe Focus Group.