BIG SUR — A portion of Highway 1 near Big Sur, California, collapsed this past week and fell into the Pacific Ocean after heavy rains caused a “debris flow” of trees, boulders, water and mud, leaving behind a 150-foot-wide gap.
Workers from the California Department of Transportation had been assessing the section of the road near Rat Creek, about 20 miles by highway from Big Sur, on Thursday when they discovered the debris on the road, the department said.
The department entered into an emergency contract that evening with a construction company to repair the road, but Friday morning, workers discovered that both lanes had fallen into the ocean below.
No one was injured. The stretch of highway that collapsed had been closed since Tuesday evening after heavy rains threatened to set off mudslides and rockslides.
The collapse, about 50 miles from Monterey, was more than a mere drop in the road. It formed a huge V-shaped scar leading down to the ocean, with a flattened pile of trees and mud from the deluge clinging to the hillside above.
“This road is prone to rock fall and slides, and this is just the nature of the highway,” said Kevin Drabinski, a department spokesperson. “We built a road on the edge of a continent, and we have the forces of the hillside and the ocean always at play.”
Drivers can use U.S. 101, a parallel highway about 25 miles inland, but doing so could lengthen their travel time considerably. For example, the detour would turn one 46-mile route into a 230-mile drive.
Highway 1, a National Scenic Byway, is desolate in some parts, while in others, it is dotted with restaurants, resorts and hiking trailheads.
Recent intense storms battered parts of California with heavy rain and left more than 100 inches of snow on the mountains around Lake Tahoe.
Five to 10 inches of rain fell near the site where the highway collapsed. That region was parched after an unseasonably dry winter, and that section of the road, on a part of the highway called the Cabrillo Highway, was within the burn scar of the Dolan fire, which ravaged the area last summer.
All of that created conditions ripe for the disastrous slide, Drabinski said.
The cost of repairs was originally estimated at $5 million, but that was before workers discovered that both lanes had collapsed.
More rain is expected next week, Drabinski said, adding that “the location is actually still active — there’s still movement in the area.”
It could be weeks before it is known how much repairs will cost or how long they will take, he said.
Crews will be working 12-hour days, seven days a week, to repair the highway, which tourists flock to for its sweeping ocean views and which is also used by a “very hearty independent group” of locals, Drabinski said.
In 2017, a landslide closed a nearby quarter-mile section of the highway, burying it in dirt up to 40 feet deep.
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