Clayton Robinson warned his wife, Kim, not to look.
“I can handle it,” she told him.
But, he said, his wife walked out and couldn’t help but cry.
A huge chunk of the back deck of their San Clemente, oceanfront apartment building had crumbled and slid down the hill — one of four buildings red tagged by the city on Wednesday, March, 15, following a landslide caused by the latest in a series of storms that have soaked the region.
“It’s just too much rain,” said Clayton Robinson, standing outside the building the couple owns. “At some point, if the hill underneath is too soft, the whole thing can’t hold it.”
The buildings along the 1500 block of Buena Vista were evacuated, with the popular beach trail from North Beach to the Dije staircase closed as geologists and engineers studied the hillside. The four apartment buildings had an estimated 20 units in all, with a mix of short-term rentals and long-term occupants.
On Wednesday, after the landslide, the four buildings started off as yellow tagged, meaning residents could go in and grab essentials. By late afternoon, all were red-tagged — deemed too dangerous to enter.
“We feel terrible for the residents and other folks staying there,” Mayor Chris Duncan said. “The city has already reached out to offer assistance in any way we can. This is a tragic situation for those families, those who live there or staying there.”
The area remained unstable, the mayor said.
“There’s no timetable when we might let people get back into the units on a longer-term basis,” he said. “When you think about the soil loss under these heavy concrete backyard patios, they can take not only the patio but the entire structure with them.”
Throughout the morning, when all four buildings were only yellow tagged, owners, residents and friends carried boxes of items out while neighbors gathered to see what was happening.
Becca and Alex Heumann thought they had time to get out their belongings, until word came their home would soon change from a yellow to a red tag.
Becca Heumann, 15-weeks pregnant and starting a new job on Monday, was overwhelmed, thinking of what she needed to grab in the hour or so she had before a yellow tag was replaced with a red one.
She grabbed family photos, and piled clothes and other necessities in bags. The bigger furniture and other items would stay, with no place to store them on short notice.
“There’s a lot of things we need to figure out,” she said, looking around her apartment, noting they would stay with her in-laws in San Juan Capistrano until they found a new place. “I just don’t know what we might need.”
Alex Heumann, who works for Surf and Turf, a nonprofit surf-and-horse therapy group in San Juan Capistrano, soaked in the view of the sea, perhaps his last look out at the expansive ocean where the couple has called home the past four years and had hoped to spend years to come with their new baby.
It was just hours earlier the Heumanns woke up from the crashing noise to find a huge section of their concrete patio and the railing gone.
“It’s all caving in!” Alex had screamed to his wife. “We walked out and smelled natural gas. We were like, ‘This place is going to go. It’s going to blow’.”
Neighbor Garett McClure, who owns Clear Water Plumbing and rents one of the units, came over and turned off their gas before packing up his own belongings. He had planned to move out Saturday anyway, so much of his stuff was already in boxes.
A neighbor who saw it happen while walking on the beach trail had alerted McClure.
“Your hill is going down,” the neighbor told him.
He immediately went to the short-term renters next door, who had small children, to encourage them to get out of the building.
“People keep asking me why I’m so happy,” McClure said. “Kids were not hurt. Nobody was hurt. That’s a good day.”
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley showed up to survey the area, walking down the Dije staircase that leads to the beach, which was taped off and closed to the public. Just a day earlier, the county declared a state of emergency.
“It helps because if we can document the incidents in Orange County, we can qualify for FEMA reimbursements,” she said. “If there’s significant damage, then the homeowners or businesses can qualify for grants or help. Anybody who needs help, we’ll find a solution.”
First responders got the initial call at 8:18 a.m. All of the buildings were immediately evacuated, with no injuries reported.
Resident CJ Smith recounted feeling his apartment shake.
“It was like an earthquake,” he recalled, looking out on his deck to see parts of the neighbors’ patio down the hill. “I literally felt our building shake. So it’s a little bit scary. They are bringing out a structural engineer, so hopefully they will say if it’s safe or not.”
Smith’s apartment ended up getting red tagged after the city noticed cracks on the outside of the building. He quickly pulled together an overnight bag.
“I’m ready to hop on a plane and go to Hawaii or something,” said the graphic designer, who can work remotely. “I’m glad nobody is hurt; I’m happy about that. I feel bad for the people who got evacuated. Not everyone is as mobile as me.”
The city is assessing whether the damage is “static or dynamic,” said Capt. Thanh Nguyen of the Orange County Fire Authority: “Our fear is that it may continue. It’s not even just more rain, but what the rain has already done to that landscape.”
The stretch along the beach trail has had mudslides in the past. In 2019, a pedestrian bridge along the trail, just a short distance from the latest slide, was closed.
Mayor Duncan said the city has to start thinking about the longer-term consequences of global warning and climate change as storm patterns intensify.
“We are already making adjustments to account for these kinds of circumstances,” he said. “This is our new reality and so we’ve got to make sure we are forward looking and do everything to protect our residents and visitors (from) these kinds of situations that are becoming increasingly common.”
When the Robinsons bought their five-unit apartment building in 2000, they hired a geologist to assess the risk. A large reinforced retaining wall was in place, so they never worried much about the potential for a landslide, Clayton Robinson said.
“We paid a lot of bucks for him,” Robinson said. “He came back and said … ‘You’ll never have a slide.’ I think when you get three to five inches of rain overnight, all the rules go out the window.”
The Long Beach couple were on their way to Los Angeles International Airport for a flight when they got the call about their building — they rushed over.
When they arrived, they saw a portion of their back deck down the hill, as well as patio furniture and a gazebo. A pool is another 10 feet back and the building is about 30 feet back, so they hope both escape damage.
“I’m not worried about the house, but the city is being, correctly, overly cautious,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t know this hill so everything is out for a couple weeks until the ground dries up and stabilizes and then we will assess,’ ” he said.
The rental property is how they make the bulk of their income. Their insurance company has indicated it will not cover the landslide.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Clayton Robinson said. “It’s nobody’s fault. We have no idea what’s going to happen, or how we’ll get through it. All we have is our faith in God and that has to be enough.”