President Joe Biden on Thursday declared the situation in Orange County with recent storm damage a federal emergency, a day after four apartment buildings were red-tagged in San Clemente following a landslide .
The slope slipping in San Clemente was the latest in a series of damage incurred along the coast during recent storms. Another landslide about a mile north shut down Coast Highway for several hours and flooding in Huntington Beach halted traffic further north . In Newport Beach, a home was demolished Thursday in the Back Bay , following a landslide earlier this month that prompted officials to red tag the structure.
Congressman Mike Levin had sent a request to the federal government to include Orange County in the emergency Biden declared in California as of March 9.
“We have to do whatever we can to ensure there are federal resources, to make sure FEMA is fully engaged to make sure that we help these residents who are being forced to leave,” said Levin, a Democrat representing the 49th District in southern OC and northern San Diego County.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 14, a day before the San Clemente landslide, expanded his state declaration to include Orange County. That same day, the Orange County Board of Supervisors also declared a local emergency amid all the recent storms .
Many of the 58 counties across California were already included in the federal response, following the difficult weather the past six to eight weeks, Levin said.
“We haven’t had it in Orange County because we haven’t needed it,” he said. “Then, things like this happen. Everybody should be on board now.”
A press conference on Thursday with a mix of local leaders, news media and concerned community members, was held in front of the unstable apartment buildings, where a chain-link fence has been put up to cordon off the structures.
“We want to make sure everyone is safe, everyone has resources to be able to carry on through this difficult time,” Mayor Chris Duncan said. “We’ve stepped up as a resource to make sure they know they can count on us to take care of them through this difficult time.”
City Manager Andy Hall, for example, helped one of the residents get into a hotel the night following the landslide, after learning they had no place to go, putting the charge on his personal credit card, Duncan said.
But it’s going to be a long road ahead, he said. “I think we need everyone to understand – we have a dynamic situation here. We have another rainstorm coming. The ground is continuing to move. These structures are still in peril.”
Levin said he reached out to the White House and FEMA to include Orange County into the federal emergency declaration following a tour of the area to see the landslide impacts.
“That declaration will allow the federal government to provide emergency resources to come directly to the community to help our residents,” he said. “Impacted communities will be able to receive reimbursement from FEMA for things like debris removal – pretty important if you look down the hill – emergency protection measures, and other measures our emergency personnel have already done to keep our communities safe.”
Levin said he was going to continue to push for federal resources for long-term relocation, to the extent it’s necessary, and for other long-term needs such as geotechnical studies.
“The bottom line is, we have to protect our amazing coast, we have to minimize the harm that comes to our beautiful beaches and our communities like this one,” Levin said.
During a tour of the area, Levin and Duncan surveyed the landslide, looking at the patio furniture and crumbled concrete that crashed down the hill, chunks missing from the decks above. The popular beach path below was closed by the debris.
Levin, who lives in nearby San Juan Capistrano, said he has taken note of the homes teetering on the cliff in the past.
“I know, because I run and walk down this, there’s some homes that have similar, less-than-ideal retaining wall setups,” he said.
Orange County Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley said in addition to this hillslide and the impact to the property owners and renters, there’s been damage across Orange County upward of $40 million as of March 9.
“Those numbers are going to escalate over the coming days, as more of our cities input their data in their system,” she said. “We have damage across Orange County. We have a couple of days to shore up what we can, as we prepare for the next storm.”
She warned that it will take at least a few weeks to determine whether the apartment buildings are safe or not.
“We cannot expect anyone to be moving in any time soon,” she said. “We’re here to help and we want to make sure the residents get the help they need.”
Property owners should also contact the county for resources to help, including tax assistance, she said.
Not much can be done to clean debris ahead of the next storm on the way, officials said.
“There’s significant uncertainty about the structures, so we can’t make a decision at this point if they are safe,” Duncan said. “They will continue to stay red tagged.”