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'Mother Of All Landslides' In Big Sur Buries Section Of California's Highway 1

Skirting California's coastline, Highway 1 offers a popular and dramatic drive through the Big Sur region. On a normal day, a drive along the winding two-lane road gets one's heart pumping with fears of plunging down the hillside.

But a weekend landslide has reshaped the coastline and closed part of the route, as a third of a mile of highway is now covered with dirt and rocks at an area called Mud Creek.

As you can see in the before-and-after graphic below, where the coast used to form roughly a straight line, it's now a rocky bulge into the Pacific.

The slide shut down a 12-mile section of the highway south of Monterey, from Ragged Point to Gorda, Calif., The New York Times reports. The executive director of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, Stan Russell, told the newspaper that while residents are used to erosion strewing rubble across the road, "This one, people are referring to as the mother of all landslides."

After a five-year drought, California finally got a rainy and snowy winter, but that precipitation has caused flooding, landslides and coastal erosion, the AP notes.

Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Transportation, told the AP on Tuesday that the landslide was the largest in the state's history that she knew of, calling it "one of a kind." Authorities say they don't know when the road will reopen.

Landslides like this one may become more frequent. Dan Carl, a district director for the California Coastal Commission, told the AP, "A lot of Big Sur is moving; you just don't see it."

While this slide is unusually massive, it's one among many that have made for a very expensive winter. In the fiscal year ending in June, Caltrans said that storms across the state have caused more than $1 billion in highway damage, the AP reports.

No one was hurt in the slide, according to the Times. The state had already closed the highway at Mud Creek after an earlier slide there left debris and buckled pavement. Crews that were working on repairs left the area last week after deciding the ground was too unstable, the AP reports.

The barricaded section of Highway 1 will no doubt have repercussions for the area's tourism industry. That beautiful, wind-in-your hair drive between Big Sur and Gorda, which Mapquest says usually takes a cool 48 minutes, now takes four hours, according to The Washington Post, owing to the now inevitable detour inland.

Landslides are so common in Big Sur that they get names. This weekend's tumble has been christened Arleen's Slide, after a local highway worker who was "standing by the side of the road when part of the hillside fell away," according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

In the ongoing battle between Mother Nature and Highway 1, nature has decisively won this round.

But some local residents are hopeful the big slide will stabilize the terrain. Kirk Gafill, a restaurant owner who leads the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, told the Monterey Herald that "[o]ne big slide took out all those smaller slides." With all the excess material out of the way, he says, now maybe "stability for that area may be restored."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.