Safety and caution were the top subjects addressed at a press conference held on Thursday afternoon, March 16, just feet in front of the four red-tagged homes that were evacuated the day before because of a landslide.
Local politicians were present to address media and the public with updates about the area’s status and efforts to get state and federal officials to recognize the matter as an emergency.
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 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 on Wednesday morning, March 15, 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. “We have another rainstorm coming. The ground is continuing to move, so these structures are still in peril.”
Levin, who toured the area Wednesday afternoon with Duncan, 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, that 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 to 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.
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.
“I’m not going to get ahead of the geologists and our building inspectors, but I’ll say that there is still significant peril out there,” said Duncan. “We see significant uncertainty about the structures, so we can’t make a decision at this point that they’re safe for sure.”
There were similarly cautious responses concerning any actions officials can take to protect the slopes near Buena Vista and down the San Clemente coastline, as well as when the full extent of debris on the Beach Trail can be assessed and eventually removed.
The city will have to take a wait-and-see approach to the matter until the storms have passed to avoid potentially causing more movement or damage, according to Duncan. Actions impacting future landslides could hold significant weight in relation to the disaster funding San Clemente could receive.
“Unfortunately, we sort of need to let the status quo be, and make sure we keep people safe and out of the area,” Duncan said. “That’s why we’ve cordoned off the Beach Trail and cordoned off these properties.”
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-goers 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.”
The evaluation process will take multiple weeks, he added. City staff will engage with the property owners and their own staff to determine when properties are safe and what can be done.
“But from the city’s perspective, we are always going to err on the side of safety,” said Duncan. “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 resident 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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