The last week has been a whirlwind of emotions for roughly two dozen San Clemente inhabitants living near the city’s coastal edge, as they were all displaced by a sudden landslide on the morning of March 15.
Residents in the 1500 block of Buena Vista heard rumbling and a loud noise akin to an explosion at around 7:30 a.m. They rushed to pack their most essential belongings and evacuate after the landslide movement sent back patios of multiple buildings and furniture down the hill overlooking the ocean. No injuries were reported.
Initially, only three apartment structures were yellow-tagged. A few hours later, another was added to the list that eventually was upgraded to red-tagged, meaning no one was allowed inside.
Continued movement on Buena Vista and debris piling up on the Beach Trail below resulted in the closure of both, with the trail to remain closed for multiple weeks, at least, officials have said.
Building owner Clayton Robinson said his tenants reported that they were able to leave his structure safely.
“(The bottom is) completely gone,” he said last week. “Well, it’s not gone; it’s just at the bottom of the hill. The whole thing went down.”
At a news conference held the next day, in front of the evacuated buildings, local officials repeatedly spoke of prioritizing safety and proceeding with caution in the aftermath.
San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, Rep. Mike Levin, State Sen. Janet Nguyen, State Assemblymember Laurie Davies and Orange County Fifth District Board Supervisor Katrina Foley spoke during the news conference, with other officials from the city, Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority present.
Duncan expressed his condolences to the residents affected, thanked first responders for rushing to the scene on Buena Vista the previous morning, and thanked county, state, and federal officials for their presence and partnership.
The city’s goal is to be a resource for displaced residents in need, according to Duncan, who added that city staff will work to take care of people through, what he acknowledged as, an unfortunate but necessary long-term process.
“I think everyone should understand we have a dynamic situation here,” he said during the March 16 news conference. “We have another rainstorm coming. The ground is continuing to move, so these structures are still in peril.”
Levin, who had toured the area with Duncan hours after the landslide, reported that the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved his request to add Orange County to the federal government’s list of California counties authorized to receive federal funding for disaster relief efforts.
San Clemente will be eligible to receive reimbursements from FEMA for actions such as debris removal from the impacted portion of the Beach Trail, the congressman said. He also reiterated that he would seek national funding to protect the coastline within his district, which is a part of the second-busiest stretch of railroad nationwide in the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor.
“We can’t stop with that declaration,” said Levin. “I’m going to push for federal resources for long-term relocation to the extent that it’s necessary, and other long-term needs, such as geotechnical studies.”
Additionally, California Gov. Gavin Newsom added Orange County to the state’s own Storm State of Emergency in response to the severe winter storms, in part because of a push from Nguyen, Davies and Foley.
More than 40 counties are eligible for state-funded disaster response efforts from entities such as the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and CAL FIRE.
On Tuesday, March 21, Duncan provided an update on the relief funding aspect, stating that state and federal programs could not be used to pay for the displaced residents’ lodging.
City staff have been doing their best, he said, to step up for the few who have needed short-term advocacy, and Duncan commended the staff for their “absolutely amazing job” in acting efficiently.
The city met with people on Monday night, March 20, where they had a “great deal of dialogue.”
During last week’ news conference, Foley said that county emergency operations staff have been active across the county, connecting people to the American Red Cross for assistance. She also advised impacted property owners to contact her office.
“We will be sure to connect (residents),” she said. “We want to make sure that tenants who have been displaced have the ability to find housing, because this is going to take a couple of weeks. We cannot expect people to be moving in anytime soon.”
Nguyen and Davies also assured the public that state entities are available for people who need help.
Responding to a question regarding the work that the city’s contracted geologist has done in investigating and monitoring the landslide, Duncan said that there was continued movement after the initial slide. The homes will continue to remain red-tagged, he added.
After another storm rolled through Southern California on Tuesday morning, Duncan said additional topsoil movement has been noted, but nothing structural.
To avoid causing further damage that could affect the disaster funding San Clemente receives, city officials have backed off from assessing the hillside or the state of the Beach Trail until after this week’s storms subside.
Regarding the nearby railroad and continued weekend passenger service down to the Municipal Pier, the city can only report risks, while Metrolink—which controls the tracks—takes the course of action it sees fit.
The city doesn’t want trains to cause more damage, Duncan said, but its hands are tied.
He added that in relation to potential landslides at locations up and down the coast, the city has not yet identified specific vulnerable locations. However, there are exposed properties and vegetation that has begun to move.
Duncan asked for residents and Beach Trail users to be cognizant of the slopes above them and to speak up when necessary.
“If you see something going on, if you see new cracking, if you see vegetation moving, please let us know so that we can start to take appropriate steps,” he said. “It’s best if we can get ahead of this, get everyone evacuated, make sure that everyone’s safe.”
Property owners have the obligation to send their own geologists and inspectors in to evaluate if their buildings are safe to return to, and the city’s role is to facilitate access to the area, Duncan said on Tuesday.
He added that the city would be happy to remove the red tags if they receive satisfactory reports, but each owner is operating on a different timeline.
“From the city’s perspective, we are always going to err on the side of safety,” Duncan said at the news conference. “We’re going to make sure our residents are safe and taken care of, and that’s what’s going to be our default until we’re 100% sure it’s safe.”
The elected officials encouraged residents to Contact Foley’s Fifth District office at 714.834.3550 and Nguyen’s office at 916.651.4036 if they see new cracks or vegetation moving on slopes along the coastline.
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