14 residents evacuated from mudslides in Berkeley Hills

The debris-flow landslide hit a house on Middlefield Road on January 16, 2023 on the way down the hill from The Spiral. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan

Fourteen people were evacuated from homes in the Berkeley Hills after a debris flow swept from Zaytuna College into the Park Hills neighborhood Monday morning.

Marjorie Cruz, who lives on Middlefield Road near The Spiral, called 911 around 6:30am when mud started pouring into her kitchen and living room. She was one of the first to experience the effects of a landslide that went down the hill and caused dangerous conditions in seven other homes.

“There’s no describing what it’s like to wake up in the morning and look out the door and see this horror set in,” Cruz told an NBC Bay Area reporter. “We have had enough rain now and for a long time to come. We get it.”

Police and firefighters moved to the area shortly thereafter to help them safely evacuate the building. Eventually, Cruz’s house and the seven others were marked in red. Battalion chief Nate Girard said none of the residents needed assistance from the Red Cross to find temporary housing.

“In that situation, they were in line with the mudslide, but it wasn’t like mud was coming down and starting to move their house,” Girard said, giving most residents time to gather their most important belongings and their home to leave houses.

The mudslide was one of three reported in the Berkeley Hills, including a large current that closed Alvarado Road on the Berkeley-Oakland border about 5 miles south. The Berkeley Fire Department also responded to a minor mudslide near UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus on Sports Lane.

The residence at 966 Middlefield Rd. is taped as unsafe on January 16, 2023. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan
The area where the Zaytuna College slope mudslide started. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan

In North Berkeley, the debris flow originated on the upper campus of Zaytuna College on Marin Ave. 2770. While a Nixle alert was issued, no information was immediately released through Zonehaven, the county’s evacuation software system, which was introduced in 2021.

The city’s emergency response center later updated an advisory for zone 16 including the evacuation notice, but the area appeared “normal” until at least 9:40 a.m

Berkeley Police said at 10:15 a.m. that no further evacuation orders are expected in the area, but residents of the neighborhood should remain vigilant and be ready to evacuate their homes if conditions change. Firefighters remained in the area as of 2:30 p.m. to address safety concerns, including a broken water main bringing water into the flow area.

Councilor Susan Wengraf first heard about the mudslide in her district around 7:15 a.m. and she said neighbors responded immediately to accommodate others who had to evacuate their homes.

“The neighbors up there are very organized,” said Wengraf. “People know each other and care about each other.”

She was initially concerned about affected neighbors with mobility issues, but said she was able to confirm with neighbors that all residents were able to exit their homes safely.

Interim Berkeley Fire Chief David Sprague radios colleagues from the top of the hill where the mudslide started. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan

Alan Kropp, a Berkeley resident and geotechnical engineer, was responding to the mudslide as a volunteer when the city called him Monday morning. He has been responding to similar cases in and around the city for nearly 50 years and said it was unlikely that more homes in the neighborhood would be seriously damaged by the mudslide.

After weeks of rainstorms in the Bay Area, Berkeley expects drier weather this week.

Kropp explained that the North Berkeley debris flow was caused by an accumulation of materials that were then washed down by the heavy rains, rather than a historic problem area prone to repeated damage.

These types of flows may have never occurred in the region and could be unpredictable, he said.

“Such debris flows are … an accumulation of material that, once released, takes a while for that material to accumulate (again),” Kropp said. “On a geologic timescale, that could be 50, 100 or more years before that particular area would collect enough material to release it again.”

These differ from areas of historic landslide recently damaged in rainstorms of 1998, 2006 and 2012. However, he said there were other parts of Zaytuna College’s campus (which previously housed the Pacific School of Religion) that have been affected by various landslide maintenance operations for approximately 40 years.

Interim Berkeley Fire Chief David Sprague speaks with staff at Zaytuna College facilities and other public works workers at the site where the mudslide began on Jan. 16, 2023. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan

Kropp said it was difficult to say when residents would be able to safely return to their homes as rain conditions could change the outcome of the mudslide in the coming days.

“Authorities always want to play it safe, and that’s the appropriate response,” Kropp said of the evacuations.

Down the street, he said the repairs could be a very expensive process for residents — and one that’s not covered by insurance.

The Claremont Hills mudslide could require extensive cleanup work

A mudslide flooded Alvarado Road on the Berkeley-Oakland border on January 16, 2023. Photo credit: Dr. Fernanda Leal

Fernanda Leal, a Claremont Hills resident, was on her way to the airport around 6 a.m. Monday when she saw that Alvarado Road was blocked by mud on her usual route down to the apartments.

She called 911 to report the slide and had to take a different route to leave the neighborhood. Her house is higher than the area where the slide occurred, but she said she was concerned for residents in the mudslide’s path.

The large slide had completely blocked the road by morning, and Oakland Police Department said the help of a contractor will be needed to clear the mud.

Oakland Department of Transportation maintenance workers TJ McIntyre (left) and David Bishop used shovels and heavy equipment to shovel mud off Alvarado Road Monday afternoon. Photo credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

The area is a site of historic landslides. In 2006, Oakland entered into an agreement with the property owner to fortify the area. At the time, experts warned that the slope posed an “imminent threat” if it continued to rain.

Sari Cooper, whose home on Alvarado Road is on a hillside very close to the chute, said she didn’t hear the rocks, mud and water tumbling down the hillside, sending a slurry between her home and her neighbor’s .

“I was in the kitchen and I didn’t hear anything at all,” said Cooper, who was forced to evacuate her home about 16 years ago when the mound also showed signs of weakness. “I was only a few meters away from it. It was completely silent.”

All day long, neighbors walked up and down the closed Alvarado Road to marvel at the giant slide. Over the past three years, they’ve watched property owners spend millions to stabilize the mound. The project was so extensive and took so long that many neighbors said it would cost millions of dollars.

“For those of us who live here, we heard it was an $8 million project, a $5 million project,” Cooper said. “You worked for years; It was a huge project. In 16 years we ended up here.”

Cooper waited for a city engineer to tell her if her house was safe. Her neighbors just below the slide had already left. Her house didn’t look damaged.

In the afternoon, two maintenance workers from the Oakland Department of Transportation were on site using heavy equipment to shovel up the mud lying on the road. TJ McIntyre and David Bishop had been there for hours and said they had many hours of work ahead of them.

This story was first published on Monday 16th January at 9am and last updated at 4:45pm

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