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Residents live on the edge of crumbling cliffs


    Cliff erosion is seen below the Esplanade Apartments in Pacifica, Calif., in 2009.

PACIFICA, Calif. >> Sonja Thompson lives so close to the edge of an 80-foot bluff above the Pacific Ocean that when paragliders fly by “you can almost high-five them.”

Having the Pacific as your backyard has its benefits, and its dangers. Crumbling cliffs have forced dozens to leave their homes and others like Thompson may have to join them as EL Nino-fueled storms batter the coast.

Last summer, whale watching was at its prime and people who live on the crumbling cliffs of Pacifica were treated to more than 200 dolphin sightings. The moon and sun rises are spectacular, and the air feels like it’s a million miles away from smoggy cityscapes.

“All the nature and wildlife I read about in New York I get to see here up close and personal here,” said Druth McClure, who moved from the East Coast to a waterfront apartment here 20 years ago.

But some residents last month came home from work to find yellow “restricted use” tags on their front doors, which required them to start packing.

“At some point and time we won’t be able to live here. These cliffs are primarily packed sand so they will no doubt crumble away,” said Jackie James, who occasionally stays with her fiancé at an ocean-view apartment still safe to occupy. “What do they say about nature? It’s a relentless march.”

Pacifica, which means peaceful in Spanish, is anything but that when heavy rains and big surf batter this largely working class city of roughly 40,000, about 10 miles south of San Francisco.

The area is one of the two most erosion-prone stretches of the state’s coastline, along with the Monterey Bay area, according to Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sediment from watersheds that historically sustained these beaches and served to protect the cliffs has been greatly reduced by human activity such as damming, flood control and dredging, Barnard said.

Sea level rise has exacerbated the problem, and its projected acceleration over the next century will expose the coast to more wave attack and erosion, he added.

The Pacifica cliffs have been crumbling for decades, as aerial photographs from the California Coastal Records Projects show.

The toll has been heavy in recent years. In 2010, two apartment buildings undermined by previous storms were evacuated and face demolition. Last month, during El Nino storms, residents of another apartment building and two homes were forced to move out. Continuing erosion has left the apartments sitting unsafely on the edge of an 80-foot bluff.

“We’re not fearful of falling off. They’ve been so diligent that they are going to tell us if we are in any imminent danger,” said Thompson, who lives in an oceanfront apartment with her wife, Karlie Thompson. The benefits of the beautiful spot, she said, outweigh the worry.

“The paragliders, they are so close you can almost high five them,” she said, adding there was one in a Santa suit over the holidays.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier and city officials have pledged to seek state and federal assistance.

Still, many forced-out residents say they feel abandoned, left alone to find money for moving, storage lockers and new housing in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area.

“Some of us tried squatting on the first night and almost got arrested,” said Gordon King, a 73-year-old disabled Vietnam vet and former merchant marine who lived in a cramped apartment with his wife Lana.

“We’ve been fighting time,” he said while packing their possessions.

The Red Cross gave them $250 but local hotels go for nearly $200 a night so they say they’ll likely rely on friends until they can find a new place to plant roots.

Jeff Bowman is in a similar situation.

“I have no job, nowhere to go,” he said. Now 55, he is unemployed after being laid off from a job at a supermarket.

“It should be my choice (to stay) rather than being told, ‘You gotta go,’” he said, standing not far from the cold pizza on the counter and crushed beer cans in the garbage.

Bowman was paying $1,200 a month for his subsidized apartment, far less than what places go for in San Francisco or other parts of Pacifica.

“I’m just going to get rid of the rest of this stuff, cash in these coins and figure out the rest of my life,” he said, pointing to a water jug filled with money.

Just four months before he was told to leave, Michael McHenry, 41, an addiction recovery coach, moved into his one-bedroom oceanfront apartment.

“I’m going to keep fighting,” he said. “I don’t couch surf nor will I let the city dump me in a homeless shelter to get me to go away.”

Standing outside his back door, he looked over the ocean then to the ground. “See the depression starting to form over there? That’s all going over very soon.”

He knew the apartment was someday going to be deemed unsafe, but figured he had more time.

“I thought I had a year,” he said.

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  • There is no sense trying to save the homes right on the edge. If these people are lucky, the state or the county government will condemn their homes and pay them something for them…but certainly not what they may have sold for a few years ago. Then the homes should be demolished, and the people who own the properties across the street should get out while the getting is good.

  • “They’ve been so diligent that they are going to tell us if we are in any imminent danger,” said Thompson, ..” WHY would you need someone to tell you if you’re in danger?

  • One strong earth quake and that whole side will be going. Its nice living right by the ocean but you have to put up with the corrosion caused by the salt air and if there’s a tsunami you have to wish your home is still there when you come back.

  • California’s problem is for decades the elected bureaucrats kow towed to the local eco terrorist about “Saving the state” so they passed thousands of new environmental laws without thinking them through.

    Now these same utterly clueless bureaucrats whine that it can take years to get all the permits, pay all the fees, required to remove non indigenous plants/trees growing in concrete lined flood control channels or stop erosion. Meantime the choked flood control channel backs up, flooding out homes and businesses when it rains, land erodes away.

    Not to worry. Home and business owners file damage claims against the city/state for their willful failure to ensure infrastructure like flood channels are clear, can do their job. In the end taxpayers pay to cover the damage. Cycle repeats every year until the channels are cleared.

    • No different in Hawaii. Insiders controls the local government at the State and City levels. Building permits favor the large corporate developers by approving permitting the construction of expensive housing and condos as opposed to reasonable residences and apartments accessible to the working class. Choice locations are reserved for the wealthy outsiders rather than the locals who were born in the neighborhoods. Simply, corruption exist where money is available and officials willingng to accept.

      • An analogy of this situation on Oahu is allowing developers to build higher and higher up the mountainside by destabilizing the mountainside so they csn build more and more homes. Residents who live below them are skrewed as boulders will get dislodged and roll down into the homes that are downhill from the development. In Nuuanu a woman, Onishi , was crushed and killed in her bedreoom when a boulder rolled down from a Pacific heights property home from above.

  • Why would anyone in their right mind live on such a precipice?? If residents defy orders to evacuate and feel “It should be my choice (to stay) rather than being told, ‘You gotta go'”, rescuers should have the same choice when deciding whether or not to respond if the building falls off the cliff.

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