The New Confusion Hill: Rising Above a Dangerous Situation
In 2005, the slide on the north side of Confusion Hill rolled across the highway yet again but this time worse than ever. It took many weeks to clear the debris and safely let traffic pass down one of the major corridors (Highway 101) through Humboldt County and to the northernmost reaches of California. Since 1996, the slide has been getting worse. The expenses and dangers to the North Coast keep increasing.
My husband was working there in January of 2000. The area had an earthquake of 5.4 magnitude after having what he termed “a series of significant storm events.” The existing masonry stone wall (in all probability the wall was part of my grandfather’s design) blew out leaving a 6 ft cavity under the south bound lane. The decision was made to retreat into the hillside 25 feet and put up a new roadbed.
Large scale construction usually involves incredibly hard work, much of it dangerous. (An average of 35 highway workers are killed each year). My husband remembers as they relocated the road, the crew ran into an area of shale. This loose rock had to be removed or else the road relocation would not happen. My husband was reluctant to send a man on an excavator out onto the area. He was afraid the slide would move causing man and machine to plunge into the river below. Eventually, though, the need for the road to be opened out-weighed the odds of an accident happening. Thankfully, the slide remained stable and no one was injured. The bravery of the man who did the work is absolutely unknown to the public and I don’t even know his name but without people like him, we couldn’t maintain our roads and our lifestyle here in Humboldt County.
Much of the work was done at night that winter of 2000 to minimize traffic problems. Of course, this added to the danger. In the photo below you can see the 1930’s masonry wall as well as get an inkling of what frightening conditions are dealt with by the construction workers.
Every year the costs in maintaining the existing Confusion Hill roadbed seemed to escalate—Millions were spent (over 14 million between 1996 and 2003 and another $14 million in the 2005-2006 winter) but still the road continued to collapse
Below, you can see the scope of the slide above the road.
The area was determined to be unstable and unfixable. The current project of moving approximately 1.5 miles of the road across the river and then back again across two bridges was begun in July of 2006. The project is slated to cost about $65- 70 million and be completed in 2009. The huge costs though are offset by the savings from no longer having to maintain the existing slide prone area. According to the Times Standard, the expense of the new work should “pay for itself” in 10 years.
Slide issues have cost local residents large sums of money, too. When the road is closed, businesses can’t send out products or receive needed supplies. A North Coast Journal article noted that Humboldt County farms produce only 10% of the food sold here. Most of our consumables are trucked in. Without the vital southern link, Humboldt County would soon experience difficulty getting in enough food for us locals.
In spite of the difficult winter, the new project rises up from the far hillside just north of Confusion Hill.
It is easy to underestimate the scope of the bridges and the effort that is going into creating them. The work can seem to creep along for months to the untrained eye. Then almost overnight, a massive new structure shoulders its way upward out of the ground.
Because for most of us the formations are rising at such a distance that even massive machines look like crawling ants, it is difficult to remember the dangerous hard work men and women do there almost every day. Imagine dangling over 200 feet above the riverbed in order to extend the thrusting edges of this:
The current resident engineer, Sebastian Cohen (who along with my husband, Kevin Church, provided many of the photographs for this blog) says the project is currently on time and on budget—with 40% of the project completed so far. The bridges (see below for an artist’s rendition) will save not only money, but time and, most importantly, probably save lives as the longer Confusion Hill remains unfixed the more likely it is that some worker will die keeping the road open for the rest of us.