Image: Apartment on eroded cliff
Jeff Chiu  /  AP
Residents of this apartment building in Pacifica, Calif., have all evacuated as storm after storm has eaten away at the bluff on which it sits.
updated 1/24/2010 11:17:33 AM ET 2010-01-24T16:17:33

It wasn't the thunderous sound of a massive chunk of ocean bluff plummeting to the beach that jarred Marva Seaton to life Thursday at 5:30 a.m., but a rap at her door.

For her own safety, she was ordered out of her apartment building, perched atop an eroding seaside cliff about 80 feet above the sea just off scenic Highway 1 south of San Francisco.

Still, like many of her neighbors who live in 18 units that have been evacuated over the past month, she planned to stay on the Pacific shoreline.

"I just relocated down the street at the Land's End," Seaton said, referring to a condominium complex a half block away that is also threatened by a disappearing bluff. "It's nice."

Last month, an apartment building here was completely evacuated, and on Thursday residents of six units in Seaton's building also had to leave their homes.

With bluffs along the Northern California coast crumbling under pressure from massive waves and driving El Nino rains, one would think the allure of seaside living would fade. But for Seaton and other coastal denizens here — many of whom hang mirrors over their kitchen sinks so they can gaze at the silver sea while doing dishes — the idea of leaving is not on their minds.

"None of us really worry about it so much," said Sandra Smith, who lives in the building next to Seaton's. "We just go with the flow. We were prepared mentally for this storm."

As rain fell Friday and a cold wind blew, neon-vested workers on the street in front of the buildings began preparing for work to reinforce the loose sandstone bluff, which had eroded to the edge of both buildings. Seaton's evacuation was caused by a 60-foot length of bluff that broke off.

Half of park gone
Down the street in front of the Land's End, half of what used to be a bluff-top park was gone. Broken walking paths led to perilous drop-offs to the rocks below. Pipes and sprinklers once covered by grass and ice plant dangled from the muddy cliffs. Bright orange plastic fencing and warning signs were strewn about.

Amid the chaos of evacuations, a storm and work crews on Thursday, Smith and other residents of Esplanade Avenue pitched in to help the evacuees move their stuff. It was raining, cold and took all day.

Luckily for some evacuees, four units in Smith's buildings were vacant, so some evacuees were able to move next door.

"People from every apartment building were helping. We worked from 6 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. in the rain," she said, standing on her balcony over the same bluff, massive waves crashing behind her. "It's a tight community."

Doug Rider, chief building inspector for Pacifica, said there were no plans to evacuate any more people on Friday. "It's a good day today. We're leaving people in their homes," he said. "But it's a day-to-day thing."

Crews brought in a massive, 180-foot-high crane to begin a project meant to shore up the cliffside and save the buildings.

Over the next two months, workers will dangle in a basket from the crane, drilling holes 60-to-80 feet into the loose sandstone cliffside. They will insert steel bars, one-and-a-half-inches thick, into the holes, fill those with grout and spray concrete over that.

Then, plates will be attached to the end of the steel bars, and everything will be tightened to create a massive sea wall that will allow the buildings to be reoccupied, said project foreman Scott Young of Engineered Soil Repairs, the firm handing the project.

In addition, massive boulders have been brought in and dropped by crane onto the beach below, helping to shield the rotting bluffs from the ocean's wrath.

Early estimates are that the whole ordeal will cost the buildings' owner $1 million to $2 million. Owner Millard Tong said he did not want to comment for this article.

7 homes lost in 1998
This is not the first time storm-driven surf and heavy rain have taken a toll on this stretch of coastline that is home to Mavericks, one of the world's most famous big wave spots.

During El Nino storms in 1998, at least seven homes in Pacifica were destroyed after the bluffs they were built on crumbled to the beach below. Homeowners then watched as wrecking machines dismantled their seaside dream homes, sending them off the cliffside.

A few miles south, at Devil's Slide on Highway 1, the California Department of Transportation is overseeing the construction of two tunnels being built in an area where the roadway has faced frequent closures from rock slides and bluff erosion.

Northward, on a stretch of the Great Highway in San Francisco, officials on Wednesday closed southbound lanes until the summer after most of the bluff near the roadway deteriorated during recent storm surf.

While engineers working on the bluffs in Pacifica believe the project will save the endangered apartment buildings, building inspector Rider said he would wait and see what the crews drilling into the bluff find before speculating on when the buildings might again be habitable.

From resident Robert DalPorto's porch, located next to the building partially evacuated on Thursday, the views of the sea were stunning. To the left, however, one can see the bluff had eroded right up to the evacuated buildings.

Still, DalPorto had no plans to leave unless he is told to and hoped he could stay in his beloved rental.

"I wouldn't buy anything here" DalPorto said. "But renting, you can always leave if you have to."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,