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Biden sends federal assistance to Orange County after landslides, storm damage

Residents displaced by landslide in San Clemente to receive help from government
Residents displaced by landslide in San Clemente to receive help from government 02:40

Four apartment buildings in San Clemente were evacuated Wednesday on the 1500 block of Buena Vista due to a landslide. The hillside behind the buildings gave way, leaving parts of the structures teetering on the edge, affecting 20 rental units. The area remained off-limits to the public Thursday.

Authorities set up a perimeter around four evacuated apartment buildings and beach trails below the landslide between landslide between North Beach and El Portal remain closed Thursday. City inspectors were assessing the condition of the slope. 

The first three buildings were evacuated at about 8:20 a.m. Wednesday.  Around 12:30 p.m., a fourth apartment building on Buena Vista was evacuated and yellow-tagged as bluff movement continued.  Building inspectors later red-tagged the apartment buildings, restricting anyone from inhabiting the buildings until further notice.

"it's still moving, even last night," San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan said on Thursday. "There's a cavity that has opened up under the patios of these four residences that is continuing to have more flow and get larger. That creates a great risk of instability. This is gonna be a longer project than we had hoped."

President Biden adds Orange County to federal emergency declaration 02:13

Officials estimate that 12 feet of the oceanfront patio crumbled down the bluff Wednesday morning after the area was soaked with heavy overnight rain Tuesday night into the morning.

"We do have a geologist on the ground, our consultant geologist from the city whose been studying the movement and we did have continual movement, even after the initial movement," Duncan said at Thursday's press conference. He noted that it could take several weeks before a conclusive answer can be reached.

The incident comes on the heels of Governor Gavin Newsom's proclamation of a state of emergency on Tuesday, calling for storm response and relief efforts for Orange County as well as in Alpine and Trinity Counties, which join 40 counties the Governor has previously proclaimed a state of emergency for since the start of severe winter storms in late February.

United States Congressman Mike Levin was also at the spot of the landslide on Wednesday, calling or President Biden to add the county to those needing federal assistance. 

"We just have to cognizant that ultimately we're gonna have more weather, particularly next week or so, and there could be additional landslides," Levin said.

Less than 24 hours later, during a press conference on Thursday, Levin said that his requests, along with Newsom's declaration for federal assistance in Orange County were successful.

"I reached out to the White House and FEMA to push for Orange County to be included in the federal emergency declaration that we have all across California," Levin said. "I'm proud to report that about an hour ago the White House approved our request and Orange County is now included."

The declaration allows the federal government to provide emergency resources to help residents impacted by the damage dealt by the powerful winter storms. 

Related: Gov. Newsom extends state of emergency to include Orange County due to winter storms

Clayton Robinson, who owns one of the multi-family buildings that has been tagged by inspectors, said that despite having between 15 and 20 guests staying Tuesday evening, everybody was safe.

"Nobody lost anything. At this moment it's just the backyard, my gorgeous backyard," Robinson said. "It's sad, but life is far more precious than things."

"Priority is our resident's safety, so we are going to err on the side of keeping them safe and taking care of them during this very difficult time," Mayor Duncan said Wednesday evening. "The truth is, the land over there is still moving and we have structures that are right on the edge of the bluff, and they are tied in to other structures, which have failed."

Orange County Fire Authority and Sheriff's personnel were on the scene where streets closed from Buena Vista to Avenida Florencio to Calle Colina. No injuries were reported.

"With the weather and what it's done to the landscape, there's the potential for this to grow. We're hoping that it stays static and that we can assess and figure out what's the next step for this," said OCFA Captain Thanh Nguyen.

"The potential for this here is that you're up on high on a bluff and normally with conditions the way they are -- it's a gorgeous area to be in -- however with the rain we've had this season that it's saturating the ground," said Nguyen. "There's absolutely zero guarantees that it [the slope] is static, and so when our firefighters first arrived, their main goal was to make sure everybody got out, so they hastily checked all three structures to make sure everybody was out. And so that's where we're at right now. We just don't want anyone to come in there, just in case additional land gives away."

Firefighters sent a camera down to the bottom of the slope to try to ascertain the magnitude of the danger.

Other neighbors on the block were concerned about their own structures.

There were concerns about houses on cliffs in Newport Beach on Galaxy Drive above the Back Bay Nature Preserve as the soil was saturated from the rain. Multiple houses were red-tagged or yellow-tagged meaning they were at risk if a mudslide occurs. 

Experts drilled about 20 feet into hillsides to extract water and try to save homes preemptively. The machines pulled out approximately 3 gallons of water per minute from the ground. 

Newport Beach homes threatened by saturated ground 02:28

Pipes and pumps were still vacuuming water out of the hillside on Galaxy Drive in Newport Beach above the Back Bay Nature Preserve Wednesday morning, where one home remained red-tagged before owners opted to demolish the building on Thursday. Neighboring houses remain yellow-tagged due to the unstable hillside. Officials said the land continues to move as of Thursday after the first landslide occurred back on March 3.

A mudslide prompted the full closure of Pacific Coast Highway from Beach Road south to Camino Capistrano in Dana Point early Wednesday morning.

Dana Point mudslide closes Pacific Coast Highway 02:23

About 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, a chunk of hillside came sliding down onto the roadway at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point. No homes were reported in danger.

Storm drains were blocked and the roadway was flooded, in addition to the mud and debris blockage from the slide.

Southbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway from Seapoint Street to Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach were closed Tuesday due to flooding and remained closed Wednesday morning.

Although the storm will be particularly wet, forecasters said the snow level will remain above 8,000 feet, with little to no accumulations anticipated.

Dry weather is expected to return Wednesday night through Thursday night, with another smaller system sliding into the area by Friday and lasting into the weekend, although the bulk of that storm will likely remain to the north, resulting in a mostly dry but cool weekend.

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