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Climate and Environment

Who's Watching The Cliffs? Building Damage From Coastal Erosion Reveals Flaws In Monitoring Seaside Risks

Portions of a home have broken off and slid down a hill. The sky looks gray and stormy.
Homes were damaged in San Clemente during the heavy rainfall on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 14-15, 2023.
(Jill Replogle
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Alex Heumann woke to a loud rumble on Wednesday morning in his usually peaceful seaside San Clemente apartment.

The sound was a warning that the land beneath him was collapsing. Heumann ran outside to the sight of half the building's patio gone.

“It was just so shocking,” he said. “It’s just really heavy.”

His wife, Becca, smelled gas and told him to leave.

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“That was kinda like a movie scene,” Heumann said. “That thought of ‘I’m not prepared for this,’ so grabbing essentials is really difficult because it all happens so fast.”

The Heumanns and their neighbors all got out safely this time, but they were lucky. There’s no process to regularly monitor coastal bluffs prone to landslides, said San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan.

“To this point, we've been really relying on our residents to, you know, let us know if they see something occurring,” Duncan said in a phone interview with LAist.

Lack of funds

Duncan said residents should call the city if they notice cracks or sliding near or in their homes, but the city itself needs more resources to carry out more robust monitoring.

“We're working with our federal, state, and county partners to develop a longer term strategy to monitor these things,” Duncan said. “We haven't, frankly, gotten the support that we've needed.”

Duncan said the small city staff lacks both funding and expertise specific to this type of situation, but he said federal funding spurred by a state of emergency declaration will help.

He also said that this year the city is finalizing a long-term plan to develop strategies to combat erosion, landslides and the impacts of sea level rise through nature-based methods as much as possible. The plan will include strategies like fortifying slide-prone hillsides with native plants that hold the land together, and a recent approval to get 250,000 cubic yards of sand added to the eroding beach.

But Orange County Supervisor Kristina Foley said regional plans around eroding coasts are “20 years behind.”

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“We don't have good plans for the slopes along the coast,” Foley said. “We have significant coastal erosion happening up and down the region. It's not going to get any easier. It's just going to get harder if we don't get a plan in place to start to address some of the impacts from the change in weather and climate.”

Old buildings are particularly at risk

The four buildings that were evacuated have now been red-tagged, which means it’s unlikely they’ll ever be inhabited again. Like many buildings along this stretch of coast, they were built in the '50s, '60s, and '70s and don’t have the same fortifications as newer buildings, which are set further back from bluff edges, on land that has bedrock beneath it, Duncan said.

“These are structures that were built in a different time when some of these concerns weren't yet known,” Duncan said. “We're facing real challenges in this stretch [where the San Clemente apartments partially collapsed], but it's not uncommon for the whole stretch of our coast. If we continue to get the kind of rainfall that we've gotten this season, they're going to continue to be in peril.”

With more rain in the forecast next week, Duncan said the city and county’s priority right now is identifying other immediately sensitive bluff areas where people live.

These types of dangerous landslide situations are only expected to become more common as the climate crisis drives increasingly extreme weather and sea level rise.

Duncan said that’s why there needs to be a balance between prioritizing the immediate safety of residents who live in older buildings, while also developing longer-term plans for what’s called “managed retreat” — the idea that many coastal communities will need to be relocated as sea levels rise. It’s something many coastal cities — and the state Coastal Commission — are working on plans for.

Confusion and stress as their lives are disrupted

For the residents who were evacuated, their lives have been disrupted for the foreseeable future. Alex Heumann said he and his wife packed as much as they could into their two cars, but their furniture and many other belongings are still stuck in their apartment, which they now have no access to.

In the meantime, they’re staying with Heumann’s parents in San Juan Capistrano.

“We just kinda have to hope we’ll have access to it,” Heumann said.

Meanwhile, life goes on: An occupational therapist who works with people with disabilities, Heumann has been working his normal schedule running group aquatic therapy classes and his own private therapy practice.

But as some shock wears off, some grief is starting to settle, Heumann said. He and his wife, who married last year, had spent their entire relationship in that apartment over the last four years.

“We felt safe there, we got married. We had such a good community there,” Heumann said. “All the neighbors — we all loved each other, had dinner together, played ping pong, tennis together. Now it’s just like, ‘Bye.'”

Though he said the city and county have been supportive, figuring out how to access resources has been confusing.

“We keep hearing words, like FEMA and Red Cross, but we haven’t had direct access to it,” Heumann said. “We don’t really know where to go.”

Duncan said the city will pay for temporary accommodations for any residents who need a place to stay. Longer-term, the city is waiting for the county and state to address funding support.

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