HomeCommunityNo stranger to disasters, Big Sur community continues to show resilience following Highway 1 collapse

No stranger to disasters, Big Sur community continues to show resilience following Highway 1 collapse

Published May 10, 2024

BY ZANA BALABAN

In the wake of natural disasters, including wildfires and landslides, it is evident that there are two sides to the Big Sur community’s response. While the countless struggles never get easier and tourist-dependent businesses suffer, residents say the community comes together in ways reminiscent of Big Sur’s early days.

The most recent example of this duality arose on March 30 when a large section of Highway 1 near Big Sur’s Rocky Creek Bridge crumbled down the cliff and into the ocean. This disaster isolated the community from the Monterey Peninsula, which is vital for basic living essentials.

Highway 1’s precarious location on the cliffs of Big Sur makes for a more complex repair for CALTRANS, who announced that the road south of the collapse will be inaccessible to the public until May 27 at the earliest. (courtesy of CALTRANS)

“No matter what anybody does for a living or what their family situation is, everybody’s impacted in some way,” says Big Sur Fire assistant administrator Angela Padilla, who lives with family in Palo Colorado Canyon, just north of where the highway slid into the ocean. “Everybody relies on being able to get to Carmel, or the Monterey Peninsula in general, for basic necessities like fuel, food, pet food, medication and doctor’s appointments.”

Big Sur Fire is a volunteer fire department founded in 1974 that serves and protects Big Sur residents, businesses and the millions of tourists who drive Highway 1 each year. While they respond to local natural disasters, other community organizations such as Peace of Mind Preparedness specialize in creating a disaster-resilient community. Wanda Vollmer, the founder of Peace of Mind, was inspired by her childhood on a ranch in San Luis Obispo where wildfires were commonplace.

“One particular summer I was awoken by a loud banging at the front door and told to get out as a wildfire was approaching,” says Vollmer, who is now employed by the California Fire Safe Council to develop programs on disaster preparedness for a range of demographics within the community. “We had to get up and evacuate, and it was absolutely terrifying from start to finish.”

According to Vollmer, Big Sur’s long history of natural disasters, including 2020’s trifecta of fires, combined with the recent road closure demonstrates what Highway 1 must sustain in the event of a disaster. This includes traffic in both directions: community members evacuating homes and emergency personnel accessing endangered communities.

A major first responder charged with fighting Big Sur’s disasters and maintaining public safety is the United States Forest Service of Los Padres National Forest, which is 15,328 acres of challenging terrain stretching down California’s coast.

According to Ivan Lamboo, Big Sur Engine 18’s Assistant Fire Engine Operator for the USFS, the striking number of disasters Big Sur has sustained throughout its history is a direct result of the region’s topography, fire history and rainfall levels. Starting with wildfires in the fall, Big Sur’s unique topography creates a vicious year-round cycle of natural disasters.

The slip-out of Highway 1 just north of Big Sur’s Rocky Creek Bridge has completely isolated the community from resources and tourist-dependent income. (courtesy of CALTRANS)

“The aftermath [of a wildfire] often includes a winter of flooding and more often than not a landslide affecting the same community which battled the wildfire months earlier,” says Lamboo, a Big Sur resident since 2020.

Another complicating factor is Highway 1’s perilous location, settled between the cliff and the mountains and creating challenging conditions for site-specific repairs. 

“In the 1930s, they constructed Highway 1 on the edge of the continent,” says Kevin Drabinski, the public information officer for District 5 of the California Department of Transportation. “There’s always been this conversation between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. There’s always been give and take.”

Since the March 30 highway collapse, CALTRANS has begun executing site-specific repairs that involve drilling nearly 100 metal rods into the existing southbound lane to create a grid stabilizing the edge of the roadway and providing protection against future rain and erosion on the cliff’s edge.

For now, the community is isolated from every direction. Three major slides–Paul’s Slide, Dolan Point Slide and Regent’s Slide–prevent the southern entrance from Paso Robles. Nacimiento Fergusson Road, which served as a passage from the east, has been closed since early 2021 due to debris flow and road failures at over a dozen sites.

In this precarious situation, the livelihood of Big Sur hangs in the balance for the substantial population who work in hospitality–restaurants, inns and general stores–and depend on the vibrant tourism industry. With the road closure in the north, many of these locations have temporarily closed, leaving employees without an income for an indefinite period and amplifying the urgency for solutions to restore connectivity and revitalize the region’s economic heartbeat.

The Dolan Fire burned over 128,00 acres across Big Sur and the Santa Lucia mountain range, one of three devastating fires the area experienced in 2020. (courtesy of BIG SUR FIRE)

Nepenthe, a restaurant located on the Big Sur Coast directly off Highway 1, has been a landmark for tourists and residents alike since opening in the late 1940s. The restaurant was one of the first to decide to close its doors.

“Really large stakeholders, businesses in the community, are shutting their doors because they cannot afford to stay open,” says Padilla, who notes that the majority of Big Sur Fire’s volunteer base works in hospitality. “There’s not enough business coming in for them to pay their electricity, propane and gas bills and for all of their employees’ wages and benefits.”

Ruby DeFloria worked as a hostess at Nepenthe until the closure. She is now among the many residents left without a job and an income. Nepenthe, along with many other businesses, expects to close until May 27 at the earliest, when CALTRANS plans to restore public access to Highway 1 south of Rocky Creek Bridge.

Growing up in Big Sur, DeFloria, like Vollmer, experienced multiple wildfires and evacuations of her childhood home. While these times involved chaotic hotel stays and prayers sent down the highway, DeFloria says the community thrives and connects best during these times.

“The Big Sur communities are a funky thing because, although tourism is what they need to live, they really enjoy this sacred time when nobody’s around,” says DeFloria, who graduated from Carmel High School in 2021. “It reminds people of the old Big Sur when there were no tourists. A lot of the time people feel very overwhelmed, like their town isn’t really in their control anymore.”

While the Rocky Creek road closure has prevented the transportation of resources to stock general stores and pantries, the Big Sur community has lengthy experience in adapting to these kinds of challenges. Most prominently, a nonprofit organization called The Big Share provides a venue for over 200 residents and workers to exchange extra groceries, garden products, hunted meat and other goods to establish a sustainable local food system.

“The community is constantly adapting to what mother nature puts in their path,” says Lamboo. “Big Sur is more than a tourist stop along a road trip–it is comprised of some of the most resilient folks you will ever meet.”

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