After major San Clemente landslide, officials warn next storm could force more evacuations

CJ Smith had just taken video of his rainy sight along the San Clemente coast on Wednesday morning when an ominous sound began to rumble.

“I heard a noise and felt the building shake a bit,” Smith, 41, said. When he looked outside his beachfront apartment, the hill behind a neighboring unit was gone.

“A pile of dirt and everything fell into the [beach] trail” which is below the cliff, he said.

No one was injured in the landslide, but at least four buildings in the 1500 block of Buena Vista – including Smith’s – were evacuated and marked red. San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan said he was unsure of the number of evacuees, but the four buildings comprise 20 units, although some are second or vacation homes.

Some of the units were initially labeled yellow, meaning they were damaged but still accessible to residents, but Duncan said officials are concerned the hill still isn’t settled – especially with the possibility of more rain in the next days.

“There’s still a significant amount of moisture out there,” Duncan said Thursday morning. “The geologist was very concerned about the four structures that we marked in red, as the hill continued to move. It’s a very dynamic situation, and we’ll continue to monitor that.

Although the next few days are expected to be much drier, the National Weather Service predicts more rain early next week.

“Anyone along this stretch, in particular, needs to be vigilant and be prepared to potentially evacuate because we have more rain coming,” Duncan said.

The landslide came a day after Orange County officials declared a state of emergency following several very wet storms, which caused an earlier landslide in Newport Beach, as well as d other damage.

Gov. Gavin Newsom extended his state of emergency Tuesday night to include Orange, Alpine and Trinity counties, meaning 43 of California’s 58 counties are now covered by the declaration, and U.S. Representative Mike Levin (D -San Juan Capistrano) on Wednesday requested that Orange County also be included in the federal declaration of emergency for California, citing “flooding conditions that have resulted in landslides and cliff erosion,” according to his letter to the president.

Duncan hopes these additional resources will help the city respond to the landslide and displaced residents.

“Frankly, we have to be prepared for residents to be out of their homes for extended periods of time, and they’re going to need help,” Duncan said. “We have cliffs all along our coast in San Clemente, and all structures on top of the cliffs are potentially at risk.”

Smith, a longtime San Clemente resident, said he and his girlfriend were staying at a hotel but hoped to return to their apartment soon. His building was not noticeably damaged by the landslide, its retaining wall in the cliff is still intact, he said.

But when he descended on the beach early Wednesday to view the damage from below, he could see the foundations of the nearby property exposed and much of his backyard – including a tent and furniture – scattered on the hill.

“You could see there were still slops,” Smith said. “It was still moving.”

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department stayed on the premises Thursday to ensure safety, Duncan said. Non-residents are not permitted on the block.

Metrolink officials were notified of the landslide, Duncan said, although it did not affect that section of the railroad, which Metrolink shares with freight trains and Amtrak. This fall, heavy rain caused shifts along the San Clemente coast, suspending passenger rail service on tracks between Orange and San Diego counties. Metrolink and Amtrak have since resumed limited weekend-only service.

In 2019, a landslide destroyed part of a bridge along the beach path, not far from the location of Wednesday’s landslide.

After this week’s landslide, officials can’t do much to stop the bluff’s movement, so they’re focused on safety, Duncan said, noting that the beach trail below the landslide has been closed. .

“It’s a really traumatic experience,” he said. “But it’s really up to Mother Nature if there’s more movement on the hill.”

Smith, whose building was marked red, said he was grateful no one was injured. “The question now,” he said, “is when will it be safe and what are they going to do to stabilize the cliff?”

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