On a stretch of coast between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, rows of apartments sit on cliffs, dangerously close to falling into the Pacific Ocean.
Powerful waves and heavy rains from El Niño storms have accelerated the erosion of the coastal bluffs in Pacifica, Calif., a spectacle widely shared online. On Friday, city officials there declared an emergency. On Monday, they condemned 20 apartments, placing yellow tags on doors and ordering tenants to collect their belongings and leave.
“Recent bluff failures have resulted in unsafe conditions for living space at 310 Esplanade Avenue,” Mike Cully, the chief building official, said in a city announcement. “Cavities in the bluff are forming to the south, west and north of the building and these critically over-steepened slopes are anticipated to fall back to more stable profiles in the next several days.”
The danger lurking in what seems like an idyllic setting was put into stark relief in a video showing people standing on their terraces as a wide chunk of the sandstone bluffs crumbled onto the rocks and shore below. In a few seconds, homes that had sat feet from the cliffs were on the edge or dangling off them.
“I filmed a small portion of a very large problem with that city,” he said. “It’s got to be happening a lot more often. We’re just not seeing it.”
Scientists have warned for years that long-term soil erosion and rising sea levels are contributing to increased flooding, cliff failures, severe storms and large-scale changes along the Pacific Coast. The concerns extend all the way down the coast to Los Angeles and San Diego.
In an article in The Times in 1976, geologists blamed development linked to urban sprawl from Los Angeles for ripping up the bluffs’ natural defenses against the surf and tide. One described the erosion to The Times as “a catastrophe waiting for the right conditions to happen.”
The latest El Niño-driven storms have battered California and are expected to continue well into spring. While the rains were welcomed after four years of drought, they have been alarming for the tens of millions of people living in the state’s coastal communities.
In efforts over the years to preserve the coastline in Pacifica, the city piled rocks along the beach, drilled reinforcement rods into the sides of the bluffs, and coated the faces of the cliffs with fiber-reinforced concrete,according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Those ledges had remained relatively intact during California’s four-year drought until this month, when unceasing El Niño-driven storms began to sweep through,” according to The Chronicle.
But residents of the newly condemned building on Esplanade Avenue seemed unprepared to give up what nature was taking by force. Tenants expressed feelings ranging from resignation to anger, mixed with a desire to stay put.