Majority of vehicles, belongings abandoned in mad dash to evacuate
Creekside Cabins residents eked out a few more hours of evacuation time after Thursday night’s occupation of the bridge over the sinkhole that opened up between the RV park and Highway 101 on December 30th.
The county paid a contractor to lay down a temporary bridge on Wednesday and Thursday, but contrary to expectations, the bridge was not available after 5:00 pm. Last night, residents refused to move off the bridge, which bought time for a stream of fully packed vehicles and one more RV to make it out of the property, which public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren and the Board of Supervisors deemed a public health emergency earlier this week.
Residents got one more hour yesterday morning, starting at 7:00 if they could. At 6:30, Danilla Sands, Director of United Disaster Relief of Northern California, was standing on the road with a headlamp on, persuading the bridge crew to let truck drivers get in to pull trailers out. Three of them were there with sturdy pickup trucks, gassed up and ready to move.
One of them was Jerry, a resident who got out early and spent the day yesterday hauling out neighbors’ trailers. By 7:15, he was over the bridge with a trailer belonging to a couple who had packed yesterday but had been unable to get a truck to haul them. Within fifteen minutes, he had taken their trailer to a nearby turnout, dropped it by the side of the road, and raced back into the park to haul away another neighbor’s home. They weren’t ready, so he went back out to reconnect to the first trailer and drop it off again, this time at a nearby campground.
Two more trucks also pulled in at first light, driven by contractors working for United Disaster Relief of Northern California, under North Coast Opportunities. Each of them extracted a trailer as well. One of them was so long, it scraped deep gouges into the hillside near the pullout where drivers had to angle their trucks to approach the narrow bridge correctly. One resident who crossed the bridge last night came back with a hitch for a car that wouldn’t start. Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office North Sector Commander Lieutenant Dustin Lorenzo helped the family and Sands push it onto the hitch.
By 8:10, everyone who was ready to get out had done so. Seven minutes later, the bridge removal operation began. It took fifteen minutes to load it onto the flatbed of a semi.
Twenty-five trailers and RV’s and 21 cars and pickup trucks remain, along with what must be tons of abandoned personal belongings.
As the excavator moved dirt above the crumpled culvert, we took a few moments to talk with Sands, next to a building that used to be called the clubhouse. She estimated that fifteen trailers and mobile homes had made it out of the park before the bridge was removed. There’s not a good count on how many people remained, either because they don’t have anywhere else to go or because they didn’t get ready in the brief window of opportunity.
There was no single, coordinated effort to organize an evacuation that was chaotic and largely ineffectual, as the majority of people’s belongings and vehicles remain. The county insists that the property owner should have fixed the culvert weeks ago, and that the bridge must come out now to avoid falling afoul of California Fish and Wildlife’s guidelines around erosion control and fish-bearing streams.
Sands said United Disaster Relief of Northern California and North Coast Opportunities got donations of time, supplies, and money from community members, and that “We were blessed” to get a grant from the Mendocino County Community Foundation to help people with vehicular expenses, like gas cards, registration, and insurance, so they could legally get on the road and find a campsite somewhere else. Volunteers spent hours at the DMV this week, trying to register some of the trailers.
Sands has spreadsheets for her clients, and can reel off how many of them are in the campground in Willits, how many have gotten hotel rooms, and how many plan to head out of the county. Some have found rentals, and at least one was sleeping in a car. Three former residents are in the hospital or recently gotten out, and had no chance to retrieve their things before the bridge came out. “We will continue to work with them,” Sands vowed. “They’ve had less than two days, less than 16 hours to pack all of their items with no help, because when the bridge was closed and everyone’s getting off work, nobody was able to come out here and help them pack…this is something that would take six months to do, and you can see visually here that a vast majority of the vehicles and trailers and belongings are still here. And they will remain here.”