12 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY april 4-10, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com The same geologic forces that make the Big Sur coastline an attraction—the steep cliffs, the plunging river valleys, the vast ocean to the west—make it a terrible place for a highway. And yet Highway 1 through this dramatic landscape, at the edge of the continent, is a leading attraction for California visitors. It’s also the only artery that connects residents and workers in Big Sur to places with amenities generally described as “civilization” (the Monterey Peninsula to the north, San Simeon to the south). And Highway 1, like the unstable cliffs it is built on, is subject to geological forces. Those forces mean the highway in Big Sur is now closed at four points, the most recent being a slip-out just south of Rocky Creek Bridge that occurred on Saturday, March 30. A chunk of pavement and the stone wall next to it collapsed—along with the earth underneath them—down the cliff to the ocean below. “The Big Sur coast is understood to be a geologically active area,” says Caltrans spokesperson Kevin Drabinski. “That has certainly been the case since the highway opened in the 1930s. You have a combination of steep cliffs leading down to the ocean, and steep cliffs leading up to the Santa Lucia Mountains. It poses a challenge for maintaining the roadway. Rain makes the dirt heavier and lubricated, and it wants to find the lowest level. That is one of the reasons we predictably see slide activity on the Big Sur coast.” Three slides on the South Coast—at Dolan Point, Regent’s Slide and Paul’s Slide, a point that has been closed to traffic since Jan. 8, 2023—mean no access to Big Sur from San Luis Obispo County. The Rocky Creek slide means no access to and from points north, with a road closure at Palo Colorado Road. An estimated 1,600 visitors were south of that closure when the road slipped out. Luckily for them, as well as residents, Caltrans engineers monitored the slip-out overnight, and determined it was stable enough to allow vehicles to continue to travel in the northbound (inland) lane. Convoys for local traffic only, with a Caltrans or CHP vehicle leading the way, began twice daily on Sunday, March 31 and have continued since. (Rain in the forecast for Thursday-Friday, April 4-5 means convoy travel on those dates is canceled, with ongoing monitoring.) But in the roughly 20 hours in between the closure and the good news that limited traffic could continue to travel on that stretch of highway, the Big Sur community incident command group convened, comparing notes to the Monterey County Department of Emergency Management’s official incident command team. The community group includes Big Sur Fire Chief Matt Harris, Big Sur Chamber of Commerce President (and Nepenthe manager) Kirk Gafill, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) leader Martha Karstens, Big Sur Health Center Executive Director Sharen Carey and Patte Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur (CABS). “It was hallelujah when Caltrans notified us there would be convoys,” Kronlund says. “Now our resources weren’t going to be depleted—we could get folks out. There were people who needed medications, or needed to get to cancer treatment this week.” And Big Sur leaders know what it’s like to be fully stranded on an “island” without even guided convoy access twice daily, at 8am and 4pm. Kronlund and Gafill each readily tick off a list of closure or access disasters in the past eight years: the Soberanes Fire in 2016, the Pfeiffer Bridge undermined in a slide in 2017 (creating an island effect), the pandemic from 2020-21, Paul’s Slide and other impacts of winter storms in 2023, followed by the Dolan and Regent’s slides in 2024, now Rocky Creek to the north. Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to the east has been closed since the atmospheric rivers of January 2023. “These things get more tiresome each time, but you try to keep your spirits up and rely on past lessons learned,” Gafill says. Primarily those lessons concern information flow and communication, striving to convey to residents and businesses the most accurate information possible. “We try to make sure everyone knows what is going on,” Gafill says. Sometimes that includes unknowns. Caltrans is hopeful about installing a traffic signal, for instance, allowing 24-hour access in the northbound lane to and from Big Sur at the slip-out to the north—but rain this week could change things, and there is no timeline yet provided. Meanwhile, springtime usually corresponds to the start of tourism season, when Big Sur’s workforce earns the bulk of its income for the year. At Nepenthe, there are currently 113 active employees; only about 15 have been working since the road closure on March 30, on things like maintenance and landscaping that are not directly visitor-serving. If the closure goes on, Gafill hopes to put another handful of employees to work on projects like refinishing furniture, but most of the workforce will have to file for unemployment. (For 26 employees who live on the property, Nepenthe can also be a patient and understanding landlord.) “For us, duration is everything. The longer this goes on, the more impactful it will be for the business community and employees, in terms of loss of income,” Gafill says. Road Rage Highway 1 slides and slip-outs have again closed off public access to Big Sur from all sides. By Sara Rubin news Above and below: Drone views of the section of Highway 1 that collapsed, along with the earth underneath it, on Saturday, March 30. Caltrans officials say a combination of rain (from above) and heavy swells and high tides (impacting the cliff below) led the area to slip out. “It poses a challenge for maintaining the roadway.” Daniel Dreifuss