On the cover North Coast Journal


May 4, 2006

Heading: Rough Road: When disaster strikes, don't count on Highway 101

Over a period of three months, journalism students from Humboldt State University, as part of a class on investigative reporting taught by Marcy Burstiner, interviewed people throughout Humboldt County on how our dependence on Highway 101 affects our lives and businesses. This story came out of that investigation. The students who wrote and contributed to this story are: John Anderson Jr., Lindsay Brokaw, Elise Castle, Jessica Cejnar: Joseph Clerici, Donald Forrest, Amy Gaber, Karina Gianola, Brooke Gibson, Cynthia Gilmer, Thadeus Greenson, Elizabeth Hilbig, Melody Hogan, Jill Koelling, Ashley Mackin, Bryan Radzin, Allison Sampite, Dietrich Seney and Joshua Tobin.

IF NATURE GIVES US A BLUEPRINT that shows us how to live, Nanette Dusi follows it well. In her pantry you'll find bags and bags of rice and beans and what seems like far more pasta and tomato sauce than the 64-year-old Arcata artist could ever eat. She keeps a year's supply of food because she once saw nature's blueprint up close.

In 1964, Dusi left her three-week-old daughter, Gina, with her mother in Brookings and headed down to Eureka to do some Christmas shopping. Before she could get back, a 75-year flood ravaged Humboldt County, ruining roads, rail tracks and bridges along Highway 101. When they reunited it was at the Klamath River, with the 22-year-old Dusi waiting on the south bank for the Army Corps of Engineers to bring Gina, now almost four months old, to her in a pontoon boat.

In her small and comfortable home in downtown Arcata, surrounded by her artwork and sleeping dogs, Dusi exudes well-being and hospitality, her halo of white curls and ready smile always present. Her children grown, she can now enjoy the fruits of her labors, and focus her energy on her art and hypnotherapy clients. She speaks with an ironic twist regarding the 1964 flood, describing a significant event in an almost offhand manner. She is no stranger to hard work and fickle weather, having lived in Humboldt County since 1960, when she moved up from the coastal town of Bodega to become the wife of a cattle rancher. When she wasn't on horseback, helping her husband with the livestock on their 2,000 acres of land, she could be found canning produce from their garden, or dressing venison, or making sausage. The 1964 flood simply meant more work — moving the horses and cattle to higher ground, transferring 50-gallon barrels of flour and rice to drier storage.

The flood cost the state an estimated $213 million — almost $1.2 billion in today's dollars, when adjusted for inflation — and isolated Humboldt County from the outside world. The Mad River jumped its banks all the way to the bay, transforming the Arcata Bottom into a vast inland sea. Towering waves kept the port closed. The Arcata Airport became the busiest in the nation for a short time, with traffic resembling the Berlin Airlift.

"The most shocking thing was the cattle," Dusi said of the flood. "You could see these trucks, camouflaged dump trucks, and truck after truck would go by [on the 299] removing dead cattle. That was shocking. Absolutely shocking. Then, for months on the beach the tide would wash up pieces of barns and cows and horses. And the mud on the [Arcata] bottoms; all you could see was the tops of fence posts. We watched barns float down the river with cats on the roof. Those are the things that really stand out."

That was more than 40 years ago. But long-time residents and business owners know it doesn't take a 75-year flood to turn Humboldt County into an island. Heavy storms close Highways 101 and 299 just about every year. Built on unstable geology, the roads slide and crumble. Little money is available to fund any but the most urgent repairs. Meanwhile, major fault lines threaten major road projects like the upcoming Confusion Hill bypass. For people like Nanette Dusi, stocking up isn't just a matter of planning for the catastrophe, it's just smart planning.

McKinleyville resident Jennifer Fuller said the closure of both 101 and 299 woke up many people this year. She stocked up on essentials after Hurricane Katrina; with a toddler to raise, she doesn't want to take any chances in case of an emergency.

She advises her clients to do that as well. Her business, Organic Construction and Consulting, helps people build environmentally-friendly homes. She urges her clients to order any specialty products well in advance, even though that might require them to sign contracts early, to prevent road closures from causing costly construction delays.

photo of Bob Fox of John's Auto Wreckers. Photo by Rick Hedstrom.Highway 101 is a constant headache for Bob Fox, owner of John's Auto Wreckers in Eureka, located on a sprawling pasture on the south side of Murray Field Airport, where abandoned cars line a dozen aisles until they are fed into a 20-ton crusher and turned into 10-inch pancakes. Fox will salvage the cars for parts to sell to just about every mechanic in Humboldt County, and then send the flattened car bodies down 101 to the Bay Area. But only if he can find drivers to make the run, which isn't easy, because many truckers don't want to run the risk that 101 will close.

Left: Bob Fox of John's Auto Wreckers. Photo by Rick Hedstrom.

Many businesses find there is no getting around it. The Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka ships 80 percent of the beer it sells out of the county, and ships in the grain and bottles needed to make it. General Manager Briar Bush (pictured below) estimated that a week's highway closure could cost the company around $90,000 if 299 stays open and almost $500,000 if both highways close. Even when the highways are open, shipping is expensive. The state won't allow tandem trucks with a combined length longer than 65 feet or single trucks longer than 40 feet from the kingpin to the rear axle in Humboldt or Trinity Counties, except for transporting livestock, because of fears that they will offtrack — the tendency for rear tires to follow a shorter path than the front tires — and careen off the tight curves at Richardson's Grove on 101 and at Buckhorn Summit along 299.

That forces Lost Coast to first contract with a smaller, regional trucker to take shipments to more developed regions of the state, usually south to the Bay Area, where the beer must be transferred onto larger trucks for interstate travel. "It costs us dearly to perform the cross-docking arrangements," Bush said.

Heading north out of San Francisco on Highway 101, city and bay views soon give way to cow pastures, rolling hills and then lines and lines of grape vines that, depending on the time of year, lie a dormant brown or explode in fiery shades of red. But it is when you leave the long valley of Laytonville past the straightaway at Spy Rock Road that the drive becomes exhilarating. It climbs and dips as it curves back and forth, and you stare at hill after hill covered in redwoods and fir trees before plunging downward to the gushing clear waters of the Eel River. Then you hit Leggett and redwoods hug the tight curves along the two lane road, and before you know it you're in Richardson's Grove, where the trees that crowd the road are wider than your car.

For historian Arlene Hartin, it's hard to match that driving experience. "The beauty of seeing the river there, the gravel banks, the trees and shrubs," she said, her voice trailing off as she thinks about it. "Just seeing the curvature ... that meandering. It's just really beautiful. I just love that drive."

But the highway is as troublesome as it is beautiful. To understand why, she said, you have to go back more than 90 years, when California turned to convicts from state prisons to transform what was then a wagon track into a road. But the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, with first pick of the land for its tracks, took the Eel River's Middle Fork. That left the highway hugging the bluff and following the sinuous curves of the river's flood-prone South Fork.

The placement of the highway left drivers at the mercy of Confusion Hill, a ridge located between Leggett and Piercy that rises 1,500 feet from the road and has been sliding for several thousand years. In the past two decades, falling rocks and mudslides often shut down traffic multiple times a year; in the 2002/2003 winter season, Confusion Hill closed 10 times. The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, estimates that a catastrophic slide there could close Highway 101 in both directions for six months or more. It isn't a question of "if" Confusion Hill is going to collapse, but "when."

The constant closure of Confusion Hill frustrates people like Fuller whose livelihoods depend on delivery of supplies. She believes the state should redirect funding for the highway toward a permanent solution. "The road is given lots of money," she said. "But it's wasted money, because it's going toward fixing a rotting road. All they're doing is putting Band-Aids on it."

photo of Briar Bush of Lost Coast Brewery. Photo by Rick Hedstrom.Caltrans is finally responding to those complaints. After years of stretching nets over the slope to catch falling rocks, Caltrans plans to solve the problem by bypassing it. Two bridges, at a cost of $70 million, will whisk drivers across a two-mile bend in the Eel River, linking them to the original two-lane highway on each side of the slide. Construction is scheduled to begin by June 28 and should take at least three years to complete.

Meanwhile, a solution to closures of Highway 299 at Buckhorn Summit will take longer. Improvements there are estimated at $176 million, and where the money would come from is anyone's guess, as the federal government has only coughed up $5.6 million.

Regardless, neither project will give us a reliable connection to the outside world. Geology is against us.

Left: Briar Bush of Lost Coast Brewery. Photo by Rick Hedstrom.


The folds of the Redwood Curtain are in the fabric of sediment that lies beneath Highway 101 from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Called the Franciscan Formation, the coastal ranges are steep young mountains thrust up from the sandstone sea floor, a million-year-old accordion of soft rock that tends to tumble down over time along the entire stretch of north 101.

Trinidad resident Susan Morton said she can't forget how a slide off Highway 101 closed the exit to her town for months in 1975. "There was a slide like that many times before," she said. "But this time most of what came down from the hillside was clay, or `Blue Goo' as some would call it. It covered the road, completely blocking traffic. It took almost a year to get the entire thing cleaned up."

And floodlights still illuminate the scar from Carl's Slide, which closed 101 to traffic for more than a month in the winter of 1982. "It is very similar to Confusion Hill," said Chris Haynes, a geography lecturer at HSU. "But rather than a little bit of debris at a time, Carl's Slide was one big movement; material kept sliding onto the road."

Named for Carl's Café — at the time, a diner outside Leggett — the slide occurred in an El Niño year. Slides also closed the 299 for several weeks at the same time. The only way out was up through Oregon and back down through Redding. "It shut us off in such a big way; not the usual few-hour closure," he said.

Haynes said that despite all of Caltrans' efforts to shore up the road and bypass the worst areas, Highway 101 will remain susceptible to slides and falling rocks. "They're one of the facts of life with the geology up here, and from cutting roads out of hillsides," he said. "If a boulder falls, and you are the next one around the corner — well, that will stop your trip."

Meanwhile, transportation experts say the new bridges at Confusion Hill are the best option for fixing the road there and will be engineered to withstand most earthquakes, but geologists worry about the possibility of a massive quake. They point to the 746-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone that stretches from Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. The last rupture occurred just about 300 years ago. Geologists say that when the Cascadia Subduction Zone ruptures, which tends to happen every 200-800 years, the resulting earthquake could level buildings, damage freeway systems and spawn tsunamis affecting the entire Northwest coast from San Francisco to Canada.

HSU Geology Professor Lori Dengler said there are few studies to predict the extent of damage in the event of an earthquake that large. But one thing she is sure of: It will knock out bridges, close roads and likely leave the county isolated for weeks. While emergency resources will be needed in the main population areas of San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle, some wonder how much attention the northern part of Northern California will get. Consider that Sonoma County has almost twice the population of Humboldt, Trinity, Mendocino and Del Norte counties combined.

Photo of The infamous slide at Confusion Hill on Highway 101. Photo by Joseph Clerici.Hence Nanette Dusi's pantry. The problem is that few people in Humboldt County are likely to be as prepared. That worries Anne Holcomb, executive director of Food For People, the state-designated hub for dispensing emergency and supplemental food in Humboldt County. Food For People distributes 1.6 million pounds of food a year to seniors, displaced families and the working poor, but it doesn't stockpile supplies for a large emergency.

Left: The infamous slide at Confusion Hill on Highway 101. Photo by Joseph Clerici.

"We're a good distribution center," Holcomb said. "But we're not expected to keep a large reserve. Given a natural disaster, it would be hard to tell what kind of resources would be available. We would probably see the same thing here as we did in the Gulf Coast [during Katrina]."

Humboldt County farms provide only 10 percent of the food we consume here, she said, and even the food we have on hand would be difficult to preserve and distribute throughout the region, in the event of a flood or blocked roads.

When the power went out during the January storms this year, the Northcoast Co-op in Arcata had to toss away food because of health concerns, said produce clerk Eric Owen. Since the Co-op's generator only powers its cash registers and lights, it relies on refrigerated trucks when power goes out for long periods of time. But the trucks couldn't reach the store because of flooding and road closures. "I poured countless gallons (of milk) down the drain," he said. "We couldn't even open the coolers to get cold goods out because it would get too warm without the power running."

Whether we will have power during emergency conditions is inextricably linked to the same forces that affect the reliability of Highway 101. Generally, our electricity comes from outside the county via two lines connecting us to the state grid. Mike Grossman, PG&E's supervisor of operations at the Humboldt Power Plant, said that during storms those lines can go out. The 135 megawatt plant is designed to provide power for the entire county via natural gas lines, but those lines run near the earthquake fault under College of the Redwoods. If the natural gas lines sever, Grossman said, the power plant has about one million gallons of fuel oil to burn — four days worth.

Rural residents are resilient. When the lights go out, many simply plug in the generator. But those generators too run on fuel, another reason why road closures are worrisome. Rex Bohn, operations manager at Renner Petroleum, the primary supplier of fuel to the North Coast, said his company can generally ship in 1.8 million gallons of fuel to Humboldt County nearly every two weeks by barge from Richmond. But in March, needed repairs delayed the only barge available that had the unique dock and pumping system the Port of Humboldt requires. When it arrived, ocean swells blocked its entrance to the bay. "The barge had to sit out beyond the bar for four days and wait for [the swells] to go down," Bohn said. For eight days, Bohn said, Humboldt County was an island.

Aside from the bypass at Confusion Hill, any infrastructure improvements along the northern stretch of 101, aside from band-aid repairs, are unlikely. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger originally proposed a 20-year, $222 billion plan for expanding and improving California's infrastructure, then pared that down to a $68 billion bond referendum. Without enough support, Schwarzenegger began talking about a $30 billion bond package for the November ballot.

The pared-down versions include little for Humboldt County roads (but could possibly provide $500,000 for a pedestrian/bike path in Fortuna). Elsewhere along 101, the governor proposed $470 million worth of projects, including extra lanes in Santa Clara County, a widening project in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and bypasses in Mendocino County in Willits and Hopland.

About $200 million a year is spent on all projects in Caltrans District 1, which includes Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Del Norte counties — a tiny percent of the state's total annual budget.

Will Caplinger, public works director for Crescent City and Caltrans representative for Del Norte County, said without more spending to make the roads reliable, the cities in the region won't see expanded commerce or population. But without that significant growth, the cities will never get enough money for improvements. "We don't have political clout," Caplinger said. "We're lucky to get a pittance from the state."

Many in Humboldt County say that Catch-22 is the tradeoff of living in a place that doesn't have a major interstate, or the pollution, traffic congestion and runaway development that often comes with it. Dusi, for example, having lived through the worst nature has dealt the county in many, many years, said she wouldn't change a thing.

"I'd just as soon sit here and flood than watch some big interstate get built on what's left of our resources," she said. Judging by the 1964 flood, "for natural disasters, people are pretty tough," she said.

Keep in mind, Dusi said, that the flood didn't drive her away, or many of the people she knew. Even ranchers coped with their livestock loss. "Small ranchers lost their livelihoods, but not their lives. They're still here," she said.

Whether the current population of Humboldt County will show the same mettle as the flood survivors of '64 remains to be seen. Contractor Jenny Fuller, who moved to Humboldt County from Southern California seven years ago, has built her business around a transplanted population, people who moved up from the big cities to build homes in a rural area.

Dan Larkin, emergency services coordinator for Humboldt County, said he is confident the county is prepared for a major emergency, but stressed that education and personal preparedness are the most important parts of the process. "The people have to do something for themselves," he said.

The Humboldt County American Red Cross urges people to keep at least three days worth of food, water and medicine on hand at all times, because it will likely take that long for emergency personnel to assess the situation and gather resources for affected areas. Dengler suggests five days of supplies as a minimum. Regardless, experts agree that the more supplies people can personally stockpile, the better off they will be.

Personal preparedness is more important the more remote you are. Linda Nellist, development associate for the Humboldt County chapter of the Red Cross, said the agency is currently holding classes in Garberville designed to teach people how to make disaster kits and organize mass care. Nellist said she hopes these students will be able to set up shelters and distribute food in their communities during an emergency.

Yashi Hoffman, a Southern Humboldt native who works at Chautauqua Natural Foods in Garberville, suggests more people grow personal vegetable gardens. Garberville has a "Lawns to Gardens" program that encourages residents to turn aesthetic yards into food producing gardens, a great asset in the event of an emergency and a step towards community sustainability. That's a concept Dusi fully endorses. "I always said, if a person kept a goat in their backyard, a cage of rabbits and a garden, they would be able to feed their families for a long time in the case of a crisis," she said.

Sit in the office of Thomas Ayotte, director of strategic planning and safety at Mad River Hospital, and you'll stare at a dozen pictures of his Shih Tzu dogs. That and volume upon volume of safety plans.

"We are acutely aware that without 101 and 299 we are what you call an isolated island of humanity," Ayotte said. How long the hospital could operate on stockpiled supplies is classified information since 9/11. Ayotte said he is confident the hospital has enough set aside to operate until the roads re-opened but he would feel more comfortable with larger stockpiles and if the state's stockpiles weren't hundreds of miles away. That location, too, is a classified secret.

But what really concerns Ayotte is that the hospital's 120 beds might not be enough to handle the numbers of injured people, considering that transporting them outside the county would be difficult. "If we have a monster earthquake ... we'll be overwhelmed," he said. "When you're dealing with large amounts of injured that show up at your door within an hour of each other, can you ever really prepare for that?"

The blood bank hopes so. Laura Williston, director of quality assurance at the North Coast Blood Bank, said 9/11 forced the county to realize that the airport, and all airports, could shut down. "When the FAA canceled all flights after 9/11, it woke us up to making a contingency plan for a `no flight' situation," Williston said. "Now we do have a contingency plan. We're working with the military and the Coast Guard to fly blood in or ship it up the coast."

The plan also counts on a small army of ham radio operators in Humboldt County, who may prove to be the only communication to the outside world if the port, roads, phone lines and electricity all went out.

Along with her husband, Eureka resident Marci Campbell, one of almost 900 ham radio operators throughout the county, got her license after a quake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale rocked Petrolia in 1992 and caused major damage to the surrounding region. "It can be a life and death link to the outside world," Campbell said.

Communication isn't the only thing Humboldt County would retain in the case of a catastrophic natural disaster. While the county might run short on power, medical supplies and many food items, it could be left with an abundance of milk from Humboldt Creamery, high-quality cheeses and bread from Cypress Grove and the Loleta Cheese Factory, fresh bread from Brio Breadworks and other local bakers and tofu from the Tofu Shop.

Dusi said local products were important to surviving the '64 flood and they could prove essential again. "We still had fresh milk and eggs, and we still have it now, if something like that happened again," she said.

While these specialty goods would not ensure the county's survival in the case of a large-scale natural disaster, a new and active rural economy arguably leaves Humboldt County in at least as good shape now as it was in 1964.

Auto wrecker Bob Fox, who has lived in the county for nearly 50 years, said he wouldn't have it any other way. "Five straight paved lanes might improve business here, but it would ruin our way of life," he said. "Our kids go off to college, and then they find work elsewhere. A few years down the road, well, here they come back again. I don't know what it is about the area, but it seems to draw us back. It's special, yeah."

Fox and Dusi seem to accept Humboldt County's flaws, realizing they make a rural lifestyle possible. But their aversion to change frustrates Bush. "We're not talking about a rogue third-world nation here, we're talking about California, for gosh sakes," he said. "It's trade that makes great nations, great societies, great cultures develop, and this area, if it does not have trade of goods and services, will collapse.



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