CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. (AP) — Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years, flooded streets, downed trees and forced rescues of more than a dozen elderly residents trapped in mud at a nursing home Monday Bulldozers marched north, triggering flood alerts and warnings in half a dozen states.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Hilary had lost much of its strength and only traces of the storm had passed over the Rocky Mountains, but warned that “continued life-threatening and locally catastrophic flooding” could be expected over parts of the southwestern United States. after record-breaking rainfall. Forecasters said the risk of flooding in states farther north on Monday was highest across much of southeastern Oregon to the west-central mountains of Idaho, with possible thunderstorms and localized torrential rain on Tuesday.
Hilary first struck Mexico's arid Baja California peninsula as a hurricane, causing one death and widespread flooding before becoming a tropical storm, one of several potentially catastrophic natural events that struck California Sunday. Along with the tropical storm that triggered tornado warnings, wildfires and a moderate earthquake broke out north of Los Angeles. So far, no deaths, serious injuries or extreme damage have been reported in the state, although officials warned risks remain, particularly in mountainous areas where the wet slopes could trigger mudslides.
In a dramatic scene, rescue workers in the desert community of Cathedral City near Palm Springs bulldozed through mud to the overcrowded nursing home, saving 14 residents by picking them up and moving them to safety, Fire Chief Michael Contreras said. They were among 46 rescue operations the city carried out between late Sunday evening and the next afternoon from mud and water up to 1.5 meters high.
“We were able to put the patients in the shovel. I've never done that in my 34 years as a firefighter, but disasters like this really make us look at rescue operations that don't happen in practice and that we don't use every day,” he told a news conference.
In the northwest San Bernardino Mountains, responders were working to clear mud blocking the homes of about 800 residents, said Alison Hesterly, chief of the Cal Fire Department.
In the mountain community of Oak Glen, Brooke Horspool helped excavate a house surrounded by about four feet of mud to free a couple, including an elderly man with medical problems.
San Bernardino County first responders also continued to rescue about 30 people stranded when the Santa Ana River burst its banks near Seven Oaks, another mountain community. Authorities said boulders in the river made it too dangerous to send boats, so people stayed overnight.
On Monday, a helicopter rescued one person with a leg injury and rescue efforts for the others are expected to continue into Tuesday morning, although some people have refused to fly out and are waiting for the flood waters to recede, authorities said.
Authorities also say a woman went missing after witnesses saw her trailer being swept away in a flash flood.
Amid Sunday's storm in Palm Desert, Terry Flanigan heard a massive crash and then received a text message from a neighbor that a 100-foot-tall gum tree had fallen on a condo across the street. She later learned that it landed on the bed of her neighbor's 11-year-old son, who luckily was in a different room.
“It was very disturbing,” Flanigan said, adding that the family went to relatives' houses while removal teams arrived to remove the branches on Monday morning. “Oh my god, what could have happened.”
Hilary is just the latest major weather event to wreak havoc across the US, Canada and Mexico. Hawaii's island of Maui is still suffering from a fire that killed more than 100 people. It was the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century. Firefighters in Canada are grappling with the worst fire season on record.
Hot water and hot air were both key factors that enabled Hilary's rapid growth – they steered it down an unusual, but not entirely unprecedented, path that brought rain to some normally bone-dry places.
It blew up daily rainfall in places and dumped probably a year's worth in Death Valley National Park, forcing the park to close indefinitely and forcing about 400 people to seek refuge in Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs pending road construction could be passable, park officials said.
On Sunday, it rained in two spurts — morning and evening — totaling 2.2 inches (5.6 centimeters) of rainfall according to a National Weather Service rain gauge in Furnace Creek. If confirmed, it would be the rainiest day in the region's history, beating the record of 1.7 inches (4.3 centimeters) set on August 5, 2022.
Park officials responded to damage to the sewer line Monday, dumping raw sewage into the desert below Stovepipe Wells.
Sunday was 1.82 inches (4.6 centimeters) the rainiest day on record in San Diego, the NWS said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. The previous record was set on August 17, 1977, when 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) of rain fell in the area after Hurricane Doreen.
“We've basically overturned all of our previous rainfall records,” Elizabeth Adams, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego, told The Associated Press.
Scientists still don't know why some storms like Hilary get big and others stay small, said Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane scientist at MIT.
“It's quite unusual for an east Pacific storm to be this big, since it's typically small and stays deep in the tropics,” said Kristen Corbosiero, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany and a Pacific hurricane expert.
The wet weather could prevent wildfires in southern California and parts of the Sierra Nevada for a few weeks, but extended rains are not expected in the areas most prone to fire, climate scientist Daniel Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles said in a Online post briefing on Monday.
In the Coachella Valley town of Desert Hot Springs, Steven Michael Chacon said roads in the housing development where he and his husband live were impassable due to flooding and he worried emergency responders might not be able to reach people.
“Basically everyone has to stay there, there is no way in or out,” he said on Monday morning.
The center of Hilary crossed downtown Los Angeles at 7 p.m. Sunday, according to the regional weather bureau, who described it as “a day for eternity” in Southern California.
“Los Angeles was put to the test, but we got through it, and we got through it with minimal impact considering what we've been through,” City Council President Paul Krekorian said.
The last tropical storm to hit California in September 1939 ripped apart train tracks, tore houses from their foundations and capsized many boats. Almost 100 people lost their lives on land and at sea.
As Hilary moved east to neighboring Nevada, flooding was reported, power went out, and a water-boiling order was issued for about 400 homes in the Mount Charleston area, where the only access and exit road was flooded. The area is approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Las Vegas.
South Texas was also preparing for the arrival of a separate tropical system that should bring much-needed rain but also possible flooding. The National Hurricane Center said tropical storms could hit coastal areas as early as Tuesday, including near the US-Mexico border, where some local residents took sandbags in preparation.
In the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Franklin raged near Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Monday.
Antczak and Stefanie Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Watson from San Diego. Associated Press reporter Eugene Garcia in Cathedral City; Ken Knight in Las Vegas; Will Weissert in Washington; Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Walter Berry of Phoenix, contributed to this report.
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