The rocks started to roll down onto Pacific Coast Highway Friday, leaving two homes on the bluff slated for demolition and eight beachside homes threatened by the crumbling cliff.
The road was closed just after noon, and homebound commuters were stopped at Topanga Canyon and rerouted through the Valley. Two lanes were reopened Monday but shut down again when geologists discovered a major fissure on the bluff that could send great chunks of earth and the deck of one house onto the highway.
At one point, residents who had parked their cars and walked past the slide were stranded when sheriffs deputies said it was too dangerous even to walk back past the slide. Some went out onto the beach and crawled over the rocks to get to the other side.
At midday Tuesday, sheriff deputies notified residents of the eight beachfront homes to leave; those who chose to stay would have to sign waivers. As of 3 p.m., all but one resident reportedly had left.
A Caltrans representative took heat from city councilmembers Monday over the closures that spelled fiscal disaster for local businesses.
Caltrans project manager Jim Lee said the road would be completely closed for five days and after that, he hoped to open one lane each way while the slide is being repaired. The total project, which includes removal of two houses and excavation of the bluff, is expected to take 120 working days; crews are to work sunup to sundown. Asked about a 24-hour-a-day work schedule, he gave three reasons that was not an option: dump sites are not open at night to take the material removed from the bluff; the demolition and grading work is deemed too dangerous to do in the dark; and because of overtime, it is not cost effective.
Before grading can begin, the two houses at the edge of the bluff must be removed. Caltrans has signed contracts to buy the two properties, at the end of Sierks Way on Las Flores Mesa, so the structures can be demolished and trucked away.
Over the weekend, the concrete deck of Les Steinmetz’s house, which had broken loose from the house and was hanging at a precarious angle, was broken up and the pieces lifted by crane onto the adjacent lot, a 1993 burn-out that was not rebuilt.
Steinmetz’s house had been completely destroyed by the fire, and a new house built in its place. He had chosen the Italian slate tile for the floors, the granite counters, the wall treatment, everything that gave the house a European feel. He had done much of the work himself, replanting the garden, now in full bloom. It would be hard to walk away from all that, he said.
“It’s the feeling of being displaced again,” Steinmetz said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve got, it can all be taken away in an instant.”
Caltrans said it would help Steinmetz and his neighbor, Joan Knapp, move out their personal belongings on Tuesday.
“The city is coordinating with Caltrans geologists to determine when the slide activity is abated to the extent that it’s safe for people to re-enter the affected homes,” said Building and Safety Official Vic Peterson.
As a temporary safety measure Monday, a dirt berm was constructed to deflect falling rocks and debris, allowing traffic engineers to reopen one lane in each direction on the eastbound lanes. But as more chunks of the slope began to break away, the road was completely shut down again at 1 p.m.
For local businesses, on the first weekend of summer, it was a fiscal disaster.
However, if the traffic backup that ensued after the partial closure is any indication of what’s to come, Malibu will be in for an oddly quiet summer, and it is predicted that many businesses, particularly those on the east end of town, could fail.
After repeated road closures during winter and spring rains, local retailers and restaurateurs were looking to the summer beach crowds to recoup their losses.
Located on the stretch of PCH between Topanga and Las Flores, Moonshadows restaurant was inaccessible from either side and has been closed since Friday. Duke’s Malibu, at the intersection of PCH and Las Flores, just a few meters from the slide that blocked the highway, was definitely between a rock and a hard place. On the weekend, when the road was completely closed to all traffic, at least residents west of the slide area came to eat. But when the road opened just one lane in each direction Monday and traffic backed up all the way to the pier, no one came but those within walking distance.
Mike Osterman, owner of Pacific Coast Greens, the local gourmet natural food market, said his business was also hit because at least 15 percent of his customers had been coming from Pacific Palisades.
At Allegria, owner Franco Simplicio said dozens of reservations for Friday and Saturday night had been canceled.
And businesses that cater to the beach crowd from town were very lonely, as cars full of would-be beachgoers were turned back at Topanga.
Local businesses that were having a tough time during this El Nino winter were counting on the first sunny summer weekend, the weekend after graduation, to make up losses incurred during the spate of road closures that virtually isolated the city during every heavy rain. Now it looks as though relief is still out of sight.