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After a large landslide in San Clemente, authorities warn that the upcoming storm could force more evacuations

CJ Smith had just taken a video of her rainy sighting along the San Clemente shoreline Wednesday morning when an ominous sound began to rumble.

“I heard a noise and felt the building shake a little bit,” said Smith, 41. When he looked out of his oceanfront apartment, the hillside behind a neighboring unit had disappeared.

“A lot of dirt and everything just went down the (beach) trail” that runs under the cliff, he said.

No one was injured in the mudslide, but at least four buildings in the 1500 block of Buena Vista, including Smith’s, have been evacuated and tagged with red tags. San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan said he wasn’t sure how many people were evacuated, but the four buildings include 20 units, though some are vacation homes or second homes.

Some of the units initially had yellow tags, meaning they were damaged but still accessible to residents, but Duncan said officials are concerned the hillside is still unresolved, especially with the possibility of more rain in the coming days.

“There is still a significant amount of moisture,” Duncan said Thursday morning. “The geologist was very concerned about the four structures that we have marked with red tags, because the hillside continued to move. It’s a very dynamic situation, and we’re going to continue to monitor this.”

Although the next few days should be much drier, the National Weather Service is forecasting more rain early next week.

“Anyone along this stretch, in particular, should be vigilant and be prepared to potentially evacuate because more rain is coming,” Duncan said.

This landslide came a day after Orange County officials declared a state of emergency following several high-wet storms, which had already caused a previous landslide in Newport Beach, along with other damage.

Governor Gavin Newsom expanded his state of emergency Tuesday night to include Orange, Alpine and Trinity counties, meaning 43 of California’s 58 counties are now covered by the declaration, and US Representative Mike Levin ( D-San Juan Capistrano) requested Wednesday that Orange County also be included in the federal emergency declaration for California, citing “flood conditions that have led to landslides and bluff erosion,” according to his letter to the president.

Duncan is hopeful that these additional resources will help the city respond to the mudslide and displaced residents.

“Frankly, we have to be prepared that residents are out of their homes for extended periods of time and they are going to need help,” Duncan said. “We have bluffs along our shoreline in San Clemente, and all the structures on top of the bluffs are potentially at risk.”

Smith, a lifelong San Clemente resident, said he and his girlfriend are staying at a hotel but hope to return to their apartment soon. His building suffered no noticeable damage from the landslide, its retaining wall on the cliff is still intact, he said.

But when he walked to the beach early Wednesday to view the damage from below, he could see the neighboring property’s foundation exposed and much of his backyard, including a tent and furniture, strewn down the hill.

“You could see it was still settling in,” Smith said. “She was still moving.”

Orange County Sheriff’s Department stayed on the scene on Thursday to provide security, Duncan said. Non-residents are not allowed on the block.

Metrolink officials have been notified of the mudslide, Duncan said, though it has not affected that section of the rail, which Metrolink shares with freight and Amtrak trains. This fall, heavy rains caused changes along the San Clemente coast, suspending passenger rail service on tracks between Orange and San Diego counties. Since then, Metrolink and Amtrak have resumed limited service on weekends only.

In 2019, a landslide downed a portion of a bridge along the beach trail not far from the location of Wednesday’s landslide.

After this week’s slide, officials can’t do much to stop the cliff from moving, so they’re focused on safety, Duncan said, noting that the beach trail below the mudslide has been closed.

“This is a really traumatic experience,” he said. “But it’s really up to Mother Nature if there’s more movement on the hillside.”

Smith, whose building was red-tagged, said he was thankful no one was hurt. “The question now,” he said, “is when will it be safe and what are they going to do to stabilize the cliff.”