BIG SUR – Peggy Horan has lived on the Big Sur Coast for 53 years. The last three weeks have been her hardest.
Since early January, torrential rain and repeated rockslides have kept much of Highway 1 – from Big Sur down to San Luis Obispo County – closed to travel.
The closures left Horan stuck in the middle, alongside her neighbors and other communities spanning the rugged coastline.
“This is honestly the worst mess we have ever experienced,” Horan said. “I’ve lived here for 53 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. (Highway 1) is closed on both sides, so we’re basically an island. The lanes look clear, but they are telling us it’s not safe.”
Though Monterey County has enjoyed dry skies for a few days now, a miles-long stretch of Highway 1 remains cut off to traffic after California’s seemingly relentless stream of winter storms that began in late December and lasted for weeks into the new year subjected the key roadway to landslides, unstable ground and lingering debris.
Within the current closure, which extends from Lime Creek to 4 miles north of San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County, there are three landslide areas of particular concern for Caltrans crews monitoring Highway 1. About 13 miles north of Mud Creek, a regular Big Sur trouble spot during storms dubbed Paul’s Slide is seeing continued slope movement in response to recent heavy rainfall.
“(Paul’s Slide) is unpredictable and the slope continues to adjust as the slide moves, causing material to flow and rocks to roll into the roadway,” Monterey County officials said in a press release Sunday night.
Four miles south, a saturated and over-steepened slope at Mill Creek is on the edge of instability. According to the county’s release, the slope “appears to be approaching failure.”
The third cause for closure is the Polar Star slide a mile south of Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County. There, county officials describe rocks and soil constantly falling. At Polar Star, the failure of oversteepened rock material is reportedly possible at any time.
Kevin Drabinski, a Caltrans spokesman, said the three slides happened sequentially over the past three weeks. Polar Star went first, taking place on Jan. 4, followed by major movements at Paul’s Slide on Jan. 14 and Mill Creek on Jan 15.
With the slopes went local residents’ access to the rest of the state.
“They’re isolated,” Drabinski said.
Caltrans is coordinating with the Monterey County Emergency Operations Center to lead a resupply convoy on Tuesday and Friday. Convoys, however, will be limited, only covering about 10 miles of Highway 1 closed from Lime Creek to Paul’s Slide.
Communities south of Paul’s Slide will have to find another alternative. That’s especially true for those south of Mill Creek, where emergency access to Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which connects Highway 1 to Highway 101 and the Salinas Valley, is blocked off.
“There’s a small population of us south of Mill Creek down to Polar Star, and we feel like we are the forgotten ones,” Horan said, reached over the phone while stranded in Gorda, a small community 3 miles south of Cape San Martin. “We feel like we are the forgotten ones.”
Going on their fourth week of road restrictions, Horan said she and her neighbors are running out of essential supplies, including medicine and propane. For now, Horan’s family at least are OK on food and power, so long as the sun stays out to power their solar panels, but that’s not the case for everyone.
“We’re lucky that we got a propane delivery right before this all started, but others are running out of propane. And once you run out of propane, you’re out of luck,” Horan said.
Apart from running out of supplies, Horan said residents are also facing the added frustration of not understanding Highway 1’s extended hard closure.
“We’ve traveled through roads that were so much worse,” Horan said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anything blocking the lanes.”
But Drabinksi explained safe passage through Highway 1 is more than just a matter of clearing away debris.
“I know there’s a lot of locals who see the roads and think they’re open, but that’s not the case,” he said. “We need to look at the slope above and see how far a slide goes. That also goes into our assessment of conditions”
And it will likely be weeks before those conditions improve. As of Monday, Caltrans is estimating six to eight weeks to clear and reopen Highway 1 at Polar Star, and two to three weeks to tackle the slide at Mill Creek. Caltrans does not yet have an estimated time for reopening Highway 1 at Paul’s Slide.
In the meantime, residents will have to make do – for some, they already have.
“We’ve had to rely on each other and our knowledge of the area to keep each other safe,” said Horan’s daughter, Jasmine Horan.
Certified as a wilderness first responder, Jasmine Horan has spent much of her time in isolation keeping track of medical needs for her friends and neighbors in Gorda. Most of her energy has gone toward facilitating resupplies of essential medications. But that’s no easy task.
“I’ve seen people run out of medicine,” Jasmine Horan said. “Others have had to double up on the ones they have, making their supplies even lower. I’ve watched people get down to their last day or two of their supplies, so they had to make dangerous choices to get those supplies for their families. And I’ve seen people’s blood pressure go up from the stress of all this.”
With isolations in Big Sur threatening to go on for several more weeks, the county of Monterey Department of Emergency Management in conjunction with the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, Big Sur Fire Department, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Big Sur community is working on a plan to help the residents that are essentially cut off from vital services. As of Monday afternoon, details of that plan were still being worked out between the county and its partners, according to Nicholas Pasculli, director of communications for the county.
Pasculli did assure that the county is “doing everything in (its) power” to ensure impacted residents receive the help they need.
For isolated residents, help can’t come soon enough.
“It takes a lot of energy to advocate for ourselves down here,” said Jasmine Horan. “It’s been alarming. I think people are finally starting to pay attention to us now, but this week was a tipping point of whether we were going to get the help and support that we needed. I just wish people had responded a little sooner.”