Brookings and Gold Beach are back open for business.
Drivers gave construction workers thumbs-up and honked horns Saturday morning as they creeped slowly across the new one-lane gravel alignment atop Hooskanaden Slide on U.S. 101, 12 miles north of Brookings.
Others, however — the first dozen or so were from British Columbia, Texas and California — didn’t seem to understand why Tidewater employees were fist-pumping as they passed by when the road opened at 10:30 a.m.
The quarter-mile stretch of roadway was wiped out in a torrential rainstorm Feb. 25, forcing drivers and delivery vehicles to use Carpenterville Road, a narrow, winding road that circumvents the slide — but whose summit is where it begins.
Tidewater Contractors spent the past two weeks hauling 21 tons of rock and gravel and piling it in preparation of building a new one-lane road over the slide.
The weather cooperated, too, over the weekend; partly cloudy weather is predicted for the rest of the week.
Crews monitored — and will continue to do so for months — the integrity of the new roadway and planned to halt traffic if it started slipping more than 3 inches an hour. As of Tuesday, the area had virtually stopped moving, said Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spokesman Dan Latham. If it stays stable, plans will begin to get a second graveled lane open.
“Over the next few weeks we will be trying to widen that out to get two lanes open, but if we do, (speed limits will be) slower because of the alignment,” said ODOT spokesman Darrin Neavoll. “We will also be working at putting together the longer-term alignment repair.”
Signs along Interstate 5, U.S. Highway 101, state highways in California and Oregon that warned motorists of the detour were changed over the weekend to read that the road is open, but with likely delays. They were all slated be removed Monday except those closest to Hooskanaden where flaggers are directing traffic.
The long term
The slide extends uphill about 700 feet where large cracks, both horizontal and vertical are visible on the grassy hillside and through which water is still pouring toward the ocean. On the downhill side lie the crumpled remains of the old roadway, 100 feet down the embankment.
The new alignment is no longer a swoop through the valley, but a gentle “S” turn that gets increasingly steep toward the north end.
But it’s what drivers between Gold Beach and Brookings will have to deal with for now, ODOT officials said.
“That’s out of my pay grade,” one construction worker said when asked Saturday about the permanent alignment.
“This has been a very difficult spot since the highway was built,” Curry County Commissioner Court Boice said. “Because we have the most beautiful coastline on the Oregon coast, we built these highways on the bluff. It draws visitors that we are incredibly grateful for, but it creates a tremendous task for us and ODOT to keep these highways open.”
And alternatives aren’t cheap — or likely, even viable, ODOT officials have said.
Thomas Creek Bridge was built as “the solution” for the travails of driving over Carpenterville Road back in 1961, said Dan Latham, ODOT spokesman. But just to the north of it lies a swath of unstable rock and clay that is constantly sloughing off toward the ocean.
Alternatives such as moving the highway or building a bridge are not feasible or practical, ODOT geologist Jill DeKoekkoek told the Oregonian.
“To realign you’re going to have to deal with land, to purchase all that property, to do an investigation on it before it is purchased,” she said. “Because of the geological formation, it’s very likely we will encounter the same thing. By avoiding one problem we are possibly encountering 10 more.”
Building a bridge would also be extremely expensive and it would have to be built on the same vulnerable earth that currently causes problems on U.S. 101.
“You’re talking a very large expenditure that’s not a good use of taxpayers’ dollars,” said DeKoekkoek. “It’s cheaper and more effective to maintain the road as it exists than to try to build a bridge that may or may not last.”
Insult to injury
The collapse comes on the heels of myriad other problems the county is facing, including two major wildfires, the highest unemployment rate in the state and rising crime, the Oregonian noted.
“We’ve been hit so damned hard,” said Boice. “No county in the state has been hit even close to us. It’s our fishing industry, salmon enhancement, forest fires, the opioid crisis. We’ve got to have help.”
Gov. Kate Brown declared an emergency for 10 counties hit by the storm that dumped more than a foot of rain on the region over one weekend in late February. The county is seeking federal disaster relief funds, citing a long list of issues negatively affecting the county and its economy.
When Hooskanaden Slide slipped 2 feet, then 12, then more than 40, its closure impacted numerous businesses on either end of the road. Gas stations in Brookings first ran out of gas — Fred Meyer was still receiving fuel intermittently last week — grocery stores were running out of certain items and people were unable to get to appointments and meetings in the other towns without going over Carpenterville Road.
Delivery trucks exceeding 60 feet in length were turned around, fuel trucks that normally arrive from the north couldn’t come over California Highway 199 with permits, and South County residents needing health care fled south to Sutter Coast Hospital and other clinics in Crescent City.
Those diverted patients hit Curry Health Network hard, with CEO Ginny Razo reporting that in-patient numbers were down 50 percent at Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach.
“We are finding higher-than-normal cancellation rates for any elective outpatient procedures, and physician office visits have also seen higher cancellation rates,” Razo told the Oregonian. “It’s also affected ambulances, which can’t take patients from South County over the alternate route because it takes too long, she said.
Boice is out rattling state and federal cages to get elected officials to take note.
“There was something obviously sad in seeing the latest and worst-ever Oregon 101 slide separating our North and South County areas,” he said. “In the last 10 years, I challenge anyone to name an Oregon city that has been hit harder than Brookings.”
With the gap closed, Boice said he’s optimistic.
“The Curry Comeback is well underway with better days ahead,” he said. “I’ll be spending significant time lobbying for help and action from all at the local, state and federal levels.”
In getting the word out to the rest of the state, Boice cited in the Oregonian the impacts from the Chetco Bar and Klondike megafires that burned more than 366,000 acres in the backcountry.
He also cited the irony that the much-needed rain — Brookings typically gets 80 inches a year, usually in the space of three months — contributes to a rapid greening-up of the backcountry that, in the summer, dries up and becomes fuel for fire.
He also took the chance to note that Curry County has one of the highest veteran suicide rates in the state, a lack of public transportation, a failing emergency communications network, a declining fishing industry and a growing homeless population.