City, county and railroad officials, as well as representatives of the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, are continuing to manage the fallout from the landslide that significantly damaged the historic landmark and prompted another passenger rail service suspension late last week.
In the aftermath of the April 27 collapse that saw Casa Romantica’s backyard terrace, landscaping and other debris fall roughly 25 feet down the hillside, officials from the city and Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) have continued to investigate the steep slope and railroad tracks below.
City engineer and Public Works Director Kiel Koger told the City Council on Tuesday night, May 2, that the main landslide area is still showing signs of movement and that more soil had moved against the neighboring Reef Gate residential complex overnight on Monday, May 1.
“The part further to the east is certainly safe; there’s nothing to worry about,” Koger said of the Casa Romantica property. “Obviously, the Ocean Terrace and the building that’s right at the back … I would probably like to keep people out of that.”
Additionally, the open wall underneath the back patio comprises mostly sandy material, raising concerns about the potential for future erosion. Koger said he would like to start remedial work as soon as possible and anticipates beginning the design stage soon.
In his conversations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Koger said he learned that it is easier for public buildings such as Casa Romantica to obtain funding. Estimating that the cost to fix the slope and secure the rear of the building would be $7 million to $8 million, Koger said FEMA could reimburse 75% of the costs.
“I don’t know anything for sure yet; that’s just what I’ve been hearing,” he said.
City Manager Andy Hall said the city’s insurance carrier, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, has been notified of the landslide. Although there is no reportable information, Hall said city officials have met with the JPIA.
A crack initially measuring a few inches wide first observed at the Casa in mid-April culminated in the landslide, which has had reverberating effects for the nonprofit that runs the cultural center, as well as to the surrounding area.
Since the landslide, the city has temporarily closed and red-tagged the property—once the home of town founder Ole Hanson—and evacuated residents of Reef Gate’s Building A. Building A sits at the lowest elevation of the complex’s three structures and was red-tagged as soil sheared, or slid against, the building. Reef Gate’s Building B has been yellow-tagged.
Koger said city staff has been working to get displaced residents back in their residences as soon as possible.
Between six to eight units were vacated, according to Hall.
A finding that the vulnerable units’ gas, water and electrical lines can be isolated from the rest of the building will be critical to the process of removing red tags from Building A’s unaffected units, according to Koger.
He added that if Reef Gate’s engineers can confirm Building B’s stability, the yellow tag could be removed.
“Reef Gate’s geotechnical and structural engineers need to determine if both buildings are safe enough to inhabit,” Koger said
During an informal press conference with other elected officials on Saturday, April 29, Mayor Chris Duncan said the soil continues to move.
Contract geotechnical consultants have been able to install an inclinometer to measure movement in the ground daily, one of the few parts of the $75,000 agreement the council had approved before the landslide occurred that could be fulfilled.
“Well, we don’t need the study anymore, because we see what’s happened,” Duncan said over the weekend. “We can use that $75,000 now to pay for the geologic studies to see where we are and if there’s continual earth movement and get an even larger team out here.”
The study called for inclinometers, as well as soil borings, the latter providing data on the soil’s properties and weight-bearing capabilities.
After the landslide, Koger said the city would still be able to conduct the boring meant to occur in the Casa Romantica parking lot. However, at Tuesday’s meeting, he reported that the first hole was caving in because of the sandy soil underneath, necessitating a replacement drill rig that drilled a new 100-foot hole earlier that day.
He added that readings from the inclinometer installed between the landslide area and the building indicate that the area is not moving.
Another consequence of the landslide involves the railroad tracks that run along San Clemente’s coastline. Because of the debris and dust that landed on the tracks, Metrolink and Amtrak announced indefinite suspension of commuter service through San Clemente.
For Metrolink, weekday service will operate as far south as the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo station and to San Juan Capistrano on weekends.
A Metrolink spokesperson told the San Clemente Times on Tuesday that the train company is continuing to monitor the situation and that it has had engineers on the site conducting analysis in the past week.
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner announced on Monday that passengers will be able to ride buses to connect to trains in Irvine and Oceanside, with limited train service in San Juan Capistrano.
“This schedule will remain in place until the tracks reopen,” according to Amtrak’s announcement.
Koger said freight trains have been running through the area at 10 miles per hour since Saturday evening.
When Duncan met with Rep. Mike Levin on Saturday to show the congressman the damage to the Casa Romantica property and was joined by Fifth District Board Supervisor Katrina Foley, all expressed the need to work together to find short- and long-term solutions.
Duncan affirmed that the city lacks its own resources to spend, and Foley and Levin spoke to exhausting all options that would contribute to a permanent fix. The latest closing of the railroad is the third in the past two years, Foley noted.
She added that commitments from the state rail system to spend $5 million supporting OCTA’s South Coast Rail Infrastructure Feasibility Study and from Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office to request $4 million from the federal government to assist the study were important to the cause.
“That will help us to, one, focus on the short term,” Foley said. “How do we make sure that this hillside is stabilized so the rails can continue to operate? How do we address the coastal erosion and get sand in there?”
Ultimately, the goal must be to relocate the railroad tracks away from the shoreline, according to Foley.