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Pacifica grapples with El Niño threat as apartment teeters on cliff

Audrey Dilling
Jeff Bowman moves out of his apartment at 310 Esplanade in Pacifica. The building was evacuated after coastal erosion caused it to teeter dangerously over a cliff.



When I pull up to the building at 310 Esplanade Avenue in Pacifica, all of the doors to the 20 apartments have yellow signs on them that say, “RESTRICTED USE.” Most of the residents are already out; they’re only allowed inside to grab their final loads. And that’s exactly what Jeff Bowman is doing. He’s packing his last boxes into a pickup truck parked out front.

I ask him where all his stuff is going.

“To a storage facility that costs an arm and a leg,” he says.

Two of the three self-storage places in Pacifica told me they’d gotten calls from Esplanade residents. But there aren’t many spaces open right now — one worker said they’ve been full for about the past three years. She tied it to the affordability crisis going on in the Bay Area – people losing their homes and needing a place to put their stuff. But right now, it’s not the economy pushing Jeff Bowman out of his home. It’s the environment.

Still, Bowman says he doesn’t want to leave.

“Well, nobody does, it's just premature I think,” he says.

For anyone who’s seen the footage of the cliff below the building crumbling away in chunks, “premature” sounds more than optimistic right now – it sounds crazy.

Bowman doesn’t yet know where he’ll go.

“At this point I'm just trying to move,” he says, at it starts to drizzle outside.

Right now it’s about noon. The forecast for today says another storm should roll in by about 4p.m. It’s supposed to bring in 15-foot waves.

That’s more bad news for the cliff.

Cliff failure

“Pacifica has a somewhat special condition in that the materials that the cliffs are composed of are exceptionally weak,” says Brian Collins, a researcher with the U.S.G.S. “So it's strong enough that it can form a vertical cliff face, but it's weak enough that it doesn't take that much to make it fall down.”

Credit Audrey Dilling
Recent El Niño storms have damaged the Pacifica Pier and a local seawall.

All it takes is some huge waves. As the waves crash against the base of the cliff, they erode the sand. And that can make the whole cliff face too steep, which leads to “cliff failure that might go all the way up to the top of the cliff,” says Collins.

That means the stuff at the top of the cliff doesn’t have much below to support it, and it all falls down.


Where to go?

Juliet Kalotkin is packing up apartment number 73. She takes my intrusion as an opportunity to shove a few items into a trash bag on her front stoop.

“I'm one of the last ones that are gonna be leaving. Everybody else, most of them already left,” she says.

Kalotkin is headed to a friend’s house to stay.

“They offered me the Red Cross center,” she says, “but they don't have a shower over there.”

The shelter was at a church, so the city gave out passes for people to shower at a nearby pool. It was meant to be a temporary solution until the displaced residents could find a different place to crash. Right now, it’s hard to find even short-term accommodations because of the Super Bowl.

Credit Audrey Dilling
The apartment next door to 310 Esplanade, owned by the same landlord, was evacuated in 2010 due to erosion.

Kalotkin says she’s already checked out nearby rents, and it looks like she’ll have to pay about $500 more than what she’s paying now.

“We have to go for it, though it's gonna be hard,” she says.

Kalotkin says she knew this day might come, but she couldn’t pass up the ocean view.

The plan

“We've been keeping an eye on that property for the last several years,” says Lorie Tinfow, Pacifica’s city manager. “We were concerned that it was going to get to the point where was no longer and that the integrity was compromised. And that's where we are now.”

Tinfow says protecting this particular building – and now, demolishing it – is the property owner’s responsibility. Same with a second building he owns next door. But the owner actually declared bankruptcy last year, so Tinfow says it’s looking like the city’s going to have to pick up the nearly $1 million tab to knock down both buildings. Then she’s got to worry about protecting the rest of Pacifica. Because a lot of the city is built along the cliff or down near the beach.

“More than half of our businesses are located in a coastal zone and all of our hotels except for one,” she says. “Currently we don't have a plan but this really sort of brought focus to the need to figure out what we're doing in the longer term.”

Tinfow has only been city manager for about two years, and she says she’s not sure why there wasn’t a clear strategy for how to deal with this kind of thing when she came on board, especially since it’s happened before. She says maybe it’s a lack of money – or vision. But she admits that with increased concern over sea level rise, “this is not an issue that we can continue not to have a plan for.”

Credit Audrey Dilling
Forty residents were forced to leave 20 apartments at 310 Esplanade Avenue, in Pacifica.

For now, she’s declared a state of emergency. That means she can try to get some of the $30 million California sets aside for disasters like this one. She can only use that money for public property, like fixing a seawall and a portion of the local pier damaged in recent storms. As for the displaced tenants, San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley has promised to find the money to help them pay first and last month’s rent when they find new apartments.

Why live on the cliff at all? Tinfow says, “People love to live close to the ocean. And yet. It comes with hazards.”

More storms to come

Down near the Pacifica Pier, people have started to gather to watch the incoming storm. It’s nearing 4 o’clock, when big waves are supposed to start rolling in. It’s still just drizzling. John Bueno is leaning against the pier with a hot cup of coffee.

Bueno says 15-foot high waves are pretty typical for this time of year. He likes to come and watch them. He lives just down the street, about a block off the beach. He says, you can’t beat the view.

Crosscurrents sea level rise