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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Travelers stranded by highway collapse begin to leave Big Sur

Construction crews work to patch a part of the road that fell out from Highway 1 in Big Sur, Calif. on January 30, 2023. Heavy storms and landslides over the weekend caused a portion of Highway 1 in the Big Sur area of California to collapse, stranding about 2,000 motorists, most of them tourists, overnight. (Ian Bates/The New York Times)

By Edgar Sandoval, Colbi Edmonds and Emma Goldberg

Officials in California on Sunday slowly began guiding drivers past a collapsed section of scenic Highway 1 in the Big Sur area, one day after the damage left about 2,000 motorists stranded overnight.

Officials with the California Department of Transportation urged the public Sunday to avoid that section of the southbound highway in the Central Coast, and Monterey County issued a disaster declaration. The highway remains closed to the public while crews work on the affected areas, where large chunks of the road fell into the ocean. The agency, known as Caltrans, did not give an estimate of when the highway would fully reopen.

Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, features stretches of rocky cliffs, lush mountains, panoramic beaches and coastal redwood forests.

Officials did not say what led to the collapse, but torrential rain Saturday battered the area near Rocky Creek Bridge, the site of the damage, which is about 17 miles south of Monterey.

There were no reported injuries from the collapse. Many of those stranded Saturday were visitors who were driving through the area over the Easter holiday and had to sleep in temporary shelters, said Nicholas Pasculli, a spokesperson for Monterey County. Others stayed in local hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds, and some slept in their cars, he added.

On Saturday evening at Nepenthe, a famed cliffside restaurant, customers slowly learned the news of the road closure from servers and bartenders, and groans could be heard as families scrambled to find empty rooms to spend the night.

Linda Molinari, a Pilates instructor from Hollister, California, and her boyfriend were two of those customers. They were making a day trip to Big Sur for lunch Saturday and ended up arriving around 4 p.m. After hearing the news about the highway, they decided to head back home. At about 5:15 p.m. they were met with a roadblock and told by authorities that they would have to turn around.

“We came here just to have lunch and go home, and now it’s like everyone is trapped here,” Molinari recalled thinking. “All the little hotels and stuff, you could tell everybody was swarming.”

Molinari and her boyfriend had brought their camper with them in case they wanted to pull over to watch the ocean. Instead, it ended up being their room for the night.

The couple went to a general store and bought some emergency supplies: water, hot dogs and instant oatmeal. They stayed near the Big Sur River Inn, which provided breakfast and Wi-Fi to travelers.

On Sunday, uniformed officials were guiding some motorists around the damaged road in organized convoys. As cars moved past the damaged area, drivers could see that a chunk of the highway had entirely disappeared, along with the rock barrier separating the highway from the cliff’s edge.

Another convoy was scheduled for Monday morning in case the crews were not able to reach everyone by Sunday night, Pasculli said.

“We’re hoping we can get all the visitors out today — that’s our hope, that’s our goal,” he said. “Suffice it to say, it’s a holiday weekend.”

An unseasonably cold and vigorous storm system cut through the southwestern Pacific Coast over the weekend, bringing rain, flash flooding and snow to parts of California and elsewhere.

Over the years, landslides have taken out portions of Highway 1, which stretches more than 650 miles, from south of Los Angeles to north of San Francisco, through Big Sur and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Most notably, in May 2017, some 6 million cubic yards of earth moved after heavy rains, adding 15 acres of coastline. The highway underwent repairs and reopened a year later.

Last year, relentless winter storms in California caused landslides that blocked a 20-mile stretch of Big Sur for several weeks.

Molinari and her boyfriend were among those who were able to leave with the convoy Sunday afternoon. They made it back home around 2:30 p.m.

“Everything went fine,” she said, adding that they had not needed to eat the hot dogs. Still, she added, “it was a crazy, weird Easter.”

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