In Southern California, Snow Has Trapped People for Days

In Southern California, Snow Has Trapped People for Days

California, winter storm

A week of intense snowfall in the San Bernardino Mountains has left residents and tourists rationing food and pleading for help.

John Radleigh thought he was ready for the snowstorm that pounded the mountains in Southern California for a week. A general contractor who has lived for more than five decades in Lake Arrowhead, a vacation hamlet, he had a backup generator and gas for his snowblower. He had enough food to hunker down with his family and chains for his car tires.

And yet, he said, he found himself in a kind of Sisyphean struggle each day. Every time he cleared the snow from his driveway, it would just pile back up.

“It’s a little discouraging,” Mr. Radleigh, 63, said. “It’s so much — the most I’ve ever seen since I’ve been out here.”

In the aftermath of a blizzard that left parts of Southern California buried under as much as 10 feet of snow, emergency workers and volunteers were still scrambling on Friday to help scores of residents and tourists who were unaccustomed to the sheer amount of precipitation — and all of the problems that come with it.

Although the sun has been shining since the storm ended on Wednesday, imposing snow berms still trapped people in cabins and cars in driveways, preventing them from leaving Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Mountain, normally popular destinations for day-tripping skiers and snowboarders from Southern California. Many have run low on food and prescription medicines.

Natural gas lines were fractured, sparking five fires in two days, officials said. When firefighters arrived to extinguish the flames, they found hydrants encased in ice and feet of snow.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in 13 counties affected by winter storms, including the ones that are home to Yosemite National Park, which has been closed indefinitely, and Lake Tahoe. But his declaration focused in particular on San Bernardino County, which has drawn greater attention because it is less accustomed to the volume of snow that fell there in recent days.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said that the mountains in San Bernardino County had become particularly treacherous not only because the weeklong storm was unusually cold and intense, but also because many Southern California visitors might have underestimated its punch.

“It’s a place people can get to from Los Angeles quickly, so there’s a mix of people who are not necessarily used to these types of risks and challenges,” he said. “They may have been prepared for several days of snow, but then they’re trapped.”

The narrow, winding roads leading into the mountain communities, he noted, can be difficult to navigate on a good day.

The state sent snow plows and crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as well as the California National Guard, to help dig out residents. While additional equipment and rescue workers are on the way, San Bernardino County officials reminded residents on Friday that mountainous regions across the state need much of their own machinery to clear the roads this month.

California has been inundated with more snow this winter than it has in decades. After the most recent round of storms, the snowpack is nearly twice its normal amount for this time of year, a level the state has not seen since 1983, the California Department of Water Resources said on Friday.

In its most recent weekly report, the U.S. Drought Monitor said that half of California — including the entire coast and much of the Central Valley, the nation’s leading agricultural region — was no longer classified as being in a drought.

But that doesn’t mean California has solved its persistent water shortage. The state’s underground aquifers will remain depleted after decades of being drawn down by farmers during long stretches of drought. And the Colorado River, which provides water to Southern California, is so alarmingly low that the federal government may soon have to cut supplies to Western states.

In San Bernardino County, CalDART, a network of pilots who volunteer to help with disasters, helped orchestrate deliveries to people in need. Zachary Oliver, who owns On the Mountain Marine and Storage, a boat repair and storage business on Lake Arrowhead, said he had helped coordinate those flights.

“It was food, medicine and baby supplies,” he said. “Nobody has formula or diapers — that’s a big one we’re needing up here.”

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department used helicopters on Thursday to deliver boxes of meals ready to eat, packages more typically associated with the military or backpackers, to help sustain people stuck in the mountains.

Trapped residents said they didn’t have any idea when they would be able to leave. And those who had escaped the storm waited anxiously at the foot of the mountains to return.

California, winter storm

David and Daphne Salas said they were grateful to be part of one of the first caravans allowed up to Lake Arrowhead on Tuesday, after they had spent last weekend out of town. They followed the hazard lights of a Stater Brothers grocery delivery truck through the fog. They passed abandoned cars.

When they reached their home, their neighbor, Mr. Radleigh, had helped clear space for their cars.

“We basically had to crawl like lizards up the hill with our groceries,” Mr. Salas, 51, said. Then they had to dig their way through to their front door.

Since then, the family has been trying to keep their spirits up, gazing at the nine-foot icicles and trying to keep their dog, a Shar-Pei pit bull named Sonny, from sinking into the snow like quicksand. They have been stretching what Ms. Salas, 50, estimated is about four more days’ worth of meat, pastas, rice, beans and tortillas.

“It’s beautiful but dangerous right now,” she said. “We can’t even go out to enjoy it.”

In a Friday news conference, San Bernardino County officials sought to reassure residents that help was on the way.

“Folks, we’re here for you,” Sheriff Shannon Dicus said. “We’re going to dig you out, and we are coming.”

Still, Sheriff Dicus emphasized that the networks of state highways, side roads and even driveways were like the arteries, veins and capillaries of a big body and said it would take time to clear them. Crews have made progress forging a narrow path for vehicles along many roads, but they have been unable to create much room for cars to stop or pass. In many cases, they still need to dig through walls of snow to create passageways on each property for people and vehicles to depart.

Officials said it could be at least another week before they would allow access to the mountain communities for anyone beyond residents and emergency crews. They urged residents to hunker down, if they could, and stretch their food stores, as it remained unclear when grocery stores would be able to operate normally.

When Matt Zack arrived last week at Jensen’s Finest Foods, the family-run supermarket he co-owns in Blue Jay, not far from Lake Arrowhead, he knew snow was in the forecast. The store had stocked up on bread, milk, eggs, firewood and other staples — and locals had begun clearing them out. The store kept supplying people until early this week, when “the last effort” of the storm piled on another 18 inches of snow.

During previous storms, enough snow could be shoveled off the decades-old building to keep the roof from sagging. But when Mr. Zack climbed a ladder this time, he faced a pile about five feet high, he estimated. There simply wasn’t enough time, nor enough people, to sufficiently ease the load.

The roof was sagging, he noticed. A building inspector ordered the place closed, and Mr. Zack didn’t know when or if it would reopen. The roof of another grocery store, Goodwin and Sons, the only one in nearby Crestline, had fully collapsed. No one was hurt, but Mr. Zack said he knew it was painful to be out of commission during a time of so much need.

“It’s just that we’re here to serve the community,” said Mr. Zack, 54. “It’s heartbreaking.”

New York Times 

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