Guest post by Sarah Harvey:
On the rugged south coast of Big Sur, the giant landslide dubbed “Paul’s Slide” has turned Highway 1 into the world’s most beautiful cul-de-sac.
A news release from Caltrans was announced at 3pm on Saturday, December 31, 2022 informing local residents that due to continued slide activity the gates at both the north and south sides of Paul’s Slide would be closed at 4:30 on that same day. (Ed note: January 4, 2023 at 5 pm is when the gates were closed as part of a full closure of highway 1 and they haven’t been opened since, per a news release posted on this blog at the time. See: https://bigsurkate.blog/2023/01/04/full-closure-of-highway-1-now-in-effect/)
The gates have been locked to nearly everyone—residents, visitors, emergency services, school busses, and mail carriers—since then. The only people permitted on the landslide, which spans across about a mile of Highway 1, are those contracted to work on the slide repairs.
For those visitors wishing to drive the scenic Pacific Coast Highway up the coast, this is an inconvenience. For those residents living here, this closure has meant a reshuffling of lifestyles. All of the work opportunities, health care facilities, and social aspects that the south coast residents usually have access to are now wholly inaccessible.
Soren Gilda, who, in spite of the closure, continued to pursue his goal of becoming a member of Big Sur Fire (BSF), a local nonprofit that trains and stations a crew of first responders, was met with major hurdles for his six-month training from January 2023 to June 2023. He lives south of Paul’s Slide and attended several training sessions per week for his certification. That meant making a drive to the northern BSF station, which normally would be an hour one way up Highway 1, but with the closure has now become at least four hours one way, detouring through the Salinas Valley and then south from Monterey.
Since Gilda’s graduation from BSF in June, he has only been able to respond to incidents south of Paul’s Slide along with the four other crew members who live on that portion of Big Sur. The five of them serve about 25 miles of coastline. He states “I’m happy to get certified, regardless of that obstacle. It’s important to have another first responder on this side of the closure.”
Kevin Drabinski, the public information officer for Caltrans District 5, explains that extensive repairs are being performed at the massive landslide and until there is a paved road, the gates will remain locked.
Extensive repairs include moving the lanes inland, raising the south end of the road, and creating a mile-long concrete K-rail barrier with netting along the northbound lane. Drabinskistates, “This redesign moves the road slightly inland and uses the contour of the mountain to create an extra catchment area, and it increases the width of that area. That expanded catchment area will allow our maintenance crews to get in there more easily and it accepts more debris—when the debris comes down—without filling up.”
This redesign also includes calculations from Caltrans geotechnicians, hydrologists, and civil engineers to determine the best way to design the road so that over time it provides efficient drainage. Drabinski refers to culverts as “the unseen superheroes of all the state highway system, but especially on Highway 1. They convey the water beneath the roadway and that means that we get to keep the roadway open longer.”
As to when there might be a paved lane on Paul’s Slide, Drabinski refers to this as “the million-dollar question.” Although the weather has been fairly dry since April, the crews have seen consistent slide activity since cutting the mountain. A wet season with rain and slide activity makes forecasting a road opening a guessing game.
Debbie Gold, the superintendent and principal for Pacific Valley School in the Big Sur Unified School District, has been juggling the complexities of having the school district physically cut in half by Paul’s Slide. The school, which serves a small population of 17 enrolled students K-12, now has nine students who live north of Paul’s Slide and cannot get across to school. The school is located eight miles south of the landslide.
Last year’s middle school teacher had to find another job for the 2023-2024 school year because there was no way for him to get there from his home north of the closure. She remarks that finding teachers to fill positions is challenging because “it’s really hard to have a school in such a remote area without access from both directions. It was hard to hire a teacher because so many people who were interested lived north of the slide, and when they found out that the slide wasn’t opening they pulled their applications.”
Gold, who lives close to the Bay Area, would normally drive three and a half hours to Pacific Valley School and stay Sunday through Thursday every week in an on-site cabin to work in-person at the school. Now her drive takes up to seven hours one-way with traffic and that long drive causes her to work remotely most of the time. She misses her role as a principal and the personal interactions that she would normally experience with students and staff.
Gold says that now “I work from home. Thank goodness for Zoom. And, I’m really looking forward to the road being open so that I can just zoom down and be there in person.”
With an El Niño weather event forecasted for the upcoming winter, the reopening of Paul’s Slide remains, literally and figuratively, up in the air.