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Friday, June 21, 2024

Highway 1 collapse near Big Sur in landslide shuts road

A 40-mile stretch of California’s Highway 1 remained closed Monday after a landslide during a major storm over the weekend caused chunks of the road to fall down a cliff, in an incident that stranded about 1,600 people until they could be evacuated.

The landslide occurred Saturday afternoon near Rocky Creek Bridge, one of several historic spans that line the scenic highway and a popular vantage point to admire the coastal views.

The slip-out caused parts of the highway’s southbound lane to break off and tumble down a cliff into the ocean, the Associated Press reported.

Engineers were still working Sunday to assess the damage, and the highway was closed early Monday in both directions at Palo Colorado, about 14 miles south of Monterey, and between Limekiln State Park and Lime Creek, according to the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans.

Crews were working to stabilize the edge of the roadway, said Caltrans, which asked people to “avoid all unnecessary travel” in the area.

All Big Sur state parks within the affected area — including Point Sur, Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Limekiln — were closed to daytime visitors and campers “until further notice,” Monterey County said.

“We want to emphasize that this is a state disaster,” Nicholas Pasculli, the head of communications for Monterey County, told SFGate on Sunday.

About 1,600 people — including tourists and locals visiting Big Sur for Easter weekend — were initially stranded, and local news outlets reported that some had to spend the night Saturday in hotels, temporary shelters or even their cars.

But on Sunday, emergency convoys escorted most people out, after state engineers determined it was safe to travel on the highway’s northbound lane.

The Monterey-area California Highway Patrol said overnight that it was not aware of anyone who wanted to leave remaining stranded. More convoys were tentatively scheduled for 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday to allow anyone who remained to get out safely, a spokesperson said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said on social media Sunday that his office was “coordinating closely” with agencies “to address a slip out on Highway 1 near Big Sur,” and he thanked the “crews working around the clock to repair the roadway and keep Californians safe.”

Saturday’s landslide could complicate efforts by state authorities to fully reopen Highway 1 by late spring, after sections around Big Sur were closed for repairs following large landslides in the first part of 2023. In December, Caltrans said “multiple months of work” were “still needed to complete repairs at the site.” The agency said it did not known how winter rains would “affect this timetable.” Since then, heavy rain has hampered repairs.

Highway 1, particularly the section along the Big Sur coast, is vulnerable to extreme weather events because of its topography and location. Storms and wildfires — made increasingly intense by climate change — are regular occurrences and can lead to erosion, landslides and mudslides that block, damage or even destroy parts of the road. Frequent travelers and those who live in the area are often aware of the risks.

As The Washington Post wrote in 2021, “the engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the ‘whens,’ not ‘ifs’ — for the people and the economy it supports.”

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