CJ Smith had just taken a video of his rainy view along the San Clemente coast Wednesday morning when an ominous sound began to rumble.
“I heard a noise and felt the building kind of shake a bit,” said Smith, 41. When he looked back outside his oceanfront apartment, the hillside behind a neighboring unit was gone.
“A bunch of dirt and everything just went down to the [beach] trail” that sits below the bluff, he said.
No one was injured in the landslide, but at least four buildings in the 1500 block of Buena Vista — including Smith’s — have been evacuated and red-tagged. San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan said he wasn’t sure how many people were evacuated, but the four buildings include 20 units, though some are vacation or second homes.
Some of the units were initially yellow-tagged, meaning they were damaged but still accessible to residents, but Duncan said officials have concerns that the hillside is still not settled — especially with the chance for more rain in the coming days.
“There’s still a significant amount of moisture out there,” Duncan said Thursday morning. “The geologist was very concerned about the four structures that we’ve red-tagged, because the hillside was continuing to move. It’s very much a dynamic situation, and we’re going to continue monitoring this.”
Though the next few days should be much drier, the National Weather Service is forecasting more rains early next week.
“Anyone along this stretch, in particular, should be vigilant and be prepared to potentially evacuate because we have more rain coming,” Duncan said.
This landslide came a day after Orange County officials declared a state of emergency following several moisture-heavy storms, which had already caused an earlier landslide in Newport Beach, along with other damage.
Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his state of emergency Tuesday night to include Orange, Alpine and Trinity counties, meaning 43 of California’s 58 counties are now covered by the declaration, and U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) requested Wednesday that Orange County also be included in the federal emergency declaration for California, citing “flooding conditions that have led to landslides and cliff erosion,” according to his letter to the president.
Duncan is hopeful for those additional resources to help the city respond to the landslide and displaced residents.
“Frankly, we have to be prepared for residents being out of their home for sustained periods of time, and they’re going to need assistance,” Duncan said. “We have bluffs all along our coastline in San Clemente, and all structures on top of bluffs are potentially at risk.”
Smith, a lifelong San Clemente resident, said he and his girlfriend are staying in a hotel but hope to get back into their apartment soon. His building wasn’t noticeably damaged from the landslide, its retaining wall in the bluff still intact, he said.
But when he walked down to the beach early Wednesday to view the damage from below, he could see the foundation of the neighboring property exposed, and much of its backyard — including a tent and furniture — strewn down the hill.
“You could see there was still settling,” Smith said. “It was still moving.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department remained at the scene Thursday to provide security, Duncan said. Non-residents are not allowed onto the block.
Metrolink officials have been notified of the landslide, Duncan said, although it has not affected that section of the railway, which Metrolink shares with freight trains and Amtrak. This fall, heavy rains caused shifting along San Clemente’s coast, suspending passenger rail service on the tracks between Orange and San Diego counties. Metrolink and Amtrak have since resumed limited service on weekends only.
In 2019, a landslide knocked out a portion of a bridge along the beach trail — not far from the location of Wednesday’s landslide.
After this week’s slide, officials cannot do much to stop the bluff’s movement, so they are focused on safety, Duncan said, noting that the beach trail below the landslide has been closed.
“This is a really traumatic experience,” he said. “But really it’s up to Mother Nature if there’s more movement on the hillside.”
Smith, whose building was red-tagged, said he was thankful that nobody was hurt. “The question now,” he said, “is when will it be safe and what are they going to do to stabilize the cliff?”