‘The response took way too long’: California mountain town still trapped by snow after two weeks

Many residents have gone days without power and faced gas leaks and storm-related fires in San Bernardino mountain towns

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Wednesday 08 March 2023 13:10 GMT
Not-so-sunny California could be hit with more snow

As the San Bernardino mountain community of Crestline reaches two weeks of being trapped in heavy snow, residents are questioning why better preparations were not made in the face of a once-in-a-generation blizzard.

Residents were still struggling to dig out from storms which began on 23 February across southern California. As much as 10 feet of snow has fallen in some high-elevation towns east of Los Angeles.

Many residents are out of necessities, have gone days without power and faced gas leaks and storm-related fires. A number of homes and businesses have collapsed under the weight of snow while many roads remain impassable and snow piles up to the rooflines on some properties.

Cierra Lavarias, of Crestline, told The Independent on Tuesday that while help is now making its way up the mountain, there appeared to have been serious lack of planning by county officials responsible for their unincorporated community.

“We rely on our county to plow and maintain the roads,” she said. “This time, it was just so much snow that it was unmanageable.

“I think residents feel there was a lack of planning from our county. We knew it was going to be a blizzard for the first time since the 1980s. We were aware days in advance that it was going to be a significant weather event, so people are very frustrated.

She added: “I think the response took way too long and unfortunately, there’s probably some casualties that we’re going to find. I think that it could have been avoided or handled better.”

Residents also wanted to know why dump trucks had not been brought into Crestline ahead of the storm, she said, and compared Crestline to another mountain community, Big Bear, which also received heavy snowfall but seemed to have more quickly returned to normal.

Ms Lavarias said that she felt fortunate that she and her husband had enough food for themselves and their dogs, and that their power was back on after having been off for five days.

A person walks near a snow berm on 6 March in front of a dental office after a series of winter storms dropped more than 100 inches of snow in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California (Getty Images)

But she said there was a “wall of snow” outside their front door, and worried for elderly and vulnerable residents.

“In our neighborhood alone, there's two or three fully collapsed homes and businesses. It's just terrible to see,” she said.

Free food distribution centers have been set up at five locations, including the community of Crestline. A line of people waited there Monday to pick up food and necessities, such as toilet paper stacked in a parking lot.

The roof of Crestline’s only grocery store, Goodwin & Sons Market, had collapsed under the weight of snow. The tire shop and local yacht club buildings have also collapsed, according to locals.

“Imagine not having any food in your house after being trapped for 13 days,” resident Michelle Calkins told KTLA-TV.

A woman who answered the phone at The Crestline Cafe told The Independent on Monday that she was unable to speak as the building was being evacuated due to a reported gas leak.

Pablo Tello, another Crestline resident, picked up a replacement for a broken shovel so he could get back to helping dig snow away from homes, with special attention to buried gas lines that have been linked to several fires.

Over the weekend, Crestline residents had trekked out to carve “HELP US!!” in block letters in the snow, which was captured by a passing ABC7 news helicopter.

Residents attempt to shovel out their driveway in Crestline this week (Getty Images)

Another Crestline resident, David Allen Burns, wrote on Facebook that “the overall damage on my street is staggering”.

He wrote: “All of us did not have power or heat or internet for 5 days this past week. Several residents are over 70 years old and without family living up here -- it is hard to explain. I feel so strongly about helping these people particularly.

“It is a harsh truth. They can’t shovel the massive amount of snow or navigate monumental ice berms. Their cars are buried in solid blocks of ice from Southern California Edison burying driveways to create access to repair damaged power poles and power lines. Old growth pine and cedar and oak trees have fallen on some homes.

“These people were mostly overlooked by the ‘search and rescue’ teams. Most of these houses do not have phone or internet at this time - lines are knocked down for many properties and will not be replaced until further notice.”

About 80,000 people live in the San Bernardino mountains, either part or full-time. However it’s not clear exactly how many people are in the area currently because many residences are vacation homes or rentals,The Associated Pressnoted.

Emergency crews continue to remove snow and debris from major access roads, public officials said, amid reports of avalanches. In local streets, snowplows were struggling to deal with the volume and residents were being advised to somehow mark the locations of cars to stop machinery crashing into them underneath snow heaps.

Last week, two house explosions were reported in the San Bernardino mountain towns of Rimforest and Lake Arrowhead, and believed to have been caused by the extreme conditions.

Fire departments asked residents to dig out hydrants where possible to save them hunting around in the snow in the midst of an emergency.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office reported on Monday that hundreds of firefighters, contractors, sheriff deputies and transportation workers were heading into the mountains to help communities.

But respite for stranded residents might still be around a week away, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said on Friday.

“We’ve said we could push it out as far as two weeks but because of the state’s efforts and the equipment that’s coming in behind us we’re hoping to drop that down to a week,” he told a press conference.

The severe California snowstorms led Governor Gavin Newsom to declare an emergency in 13 counties.

Rainfall is expected across San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo counties from Thursday, according to the National Weather Service’s LA office.

Small stream and river flooding is a risk, while snow melt will increase the avalanche threat where there’s deep snow.

AP contributed to this report

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