After days of urgent warnings and preparations, Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall in Baja California on Sunday, turning roads into raging rivers and imperiling homes before barreling northward toward Southern California.
But as the Southland readied for a deluge, another whammy struck: A 5.1 earthquake centered in Ojai rocked the region, adding to the general sense of anxiety. It was also another reminder of Mother Nature’s unpredictable temperament for a region already on edge.
Hilary gave Southern California a preview of its awesome power as its center hit the Baja California peninsula around 11 a.m., some 150 miles south of Ensenada. At least one person was reported drowned in the Mexican town of Santa Rosalia, when a vehicle was swept away in an overflowing stream. Rescue workers saved four other people, said Edith Aguilar Villavicencio, the mayor of Mulege township.
“This is an unprecedented weather event,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass warned during a morning news conference. “Right now again, it is critical that Angelenos stay safe and stay home unless otherwise directed by safety officials. Avoid unnecessary travel. If you do not need to be on the road, please don’t get in your car. Make sure your emergency kit and essential devices are on hand and ensure that all of your devices are charged in the event of life-threatening emergency.”
Across Southern California, residents in flood-prone areas gathered to fill sandbags, as shoppers emptied shelves of batteries, water and other goods. Beaches in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties were ordered closed.
The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for the Palm Springs area until 5 p.m. and Los Angeles County through 7:45 p.m. The heaviest rains in Southern California are expected to fall in the mountains and deserts. Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the worst of the storm is expected to hit, are expecting 5 to 10 inches of rain for their mountains and desert areas.
“That’s the area of the most concern and of the greatest risk of significant flooding,” said Ryan Kittell, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oxnard. Places such as Lancaster — which averages 7 inches of rain a year — are expected to nearly meet that in one day.
By noon, there were some road closures in Southern California, including a section of Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach and truck lane connectors from the 5 Freeway to Highway 14. Major theme parks also closed. Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flag‘s Magic Mountain closed and Disneyland announced it would shut its doors early.
In San Diego, officials blocked off areas that flooded in earlier storms, and water had already started to gather in some roads near California’s Border Field State Park. A boulder fell along Highway 98 near Calexico as the storm pressed down in the region.
The center of the storm was expected to hit San Diego on Sunday afternoon and move northeast, reaching the borders of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties by evening, said Joe Sirard, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
“Flooding can happen very quickly with this kind of system,” he said.
Tropical storm rains are unrelenting, unlike the heavy winter storms the region is accustomed to, in which there are lulls in the rainfall, he said.
“It’s the high-intensity rainfall in a short period of time that causes the flooding and flash flooding,” Sirard said. “That’s the danger.”
Evacuation warnings had been issued for Santa Catalina Island and some communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. But in some cases, residents from Southern California to Tijuana — many who have never experienced a tropical storm — shrugged off the dangers of the storm.
“My plan is I’m just gonna stay right here and I’m just gonna work,” said Johnathan Muñoz, in the Tijuana neighborhood of Aviacion. Muñoz planned to sell candy for 10 pesos — less than $1. “It’s the only way I make money.”
In advance of the storm, the Mexican government put 18,000 soldiers on alert. Officials in the flood-prone Tijuana area opened five temporary shelters and reported that families had already begun arriving late Saturday night. Beaches were also closed.
“I’m just praying that nobody gets hurt,” Muñoz said.
But several said they hadn’t taken precautions even as they knew that the poor infrastructure was unlikely to prevent flooding.
“‘I’m going to be here,” said Julian Castillo, whose family has lived in Tijuana’s middle-class Colonia Castillo neighborhood since the 1990s. Just a block away, deep murky water pooled at the bottom of a hill.
“It always gets flooded. When it rains down there it clogs very easily,” Castillo said. “People here don’t clean up the storm drains before the rain. They do it after something happens.”
Over the border in California, San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Mike McClintock said more than 100,000 sandbags had been distributed to residents at fire stations over the last couple of days.
Other county departments are busy clearing out floodways and evacuating homeless people along drainage areas in the region. The county has added more than 50 people to swift water evacuation and strike teams so they can more quickly respond to emergencies during the storm, McClintock said.
“We have an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting things going,” he said. “This tropical storm making landfall is kind of historic in our generation. We are not taking that lightly.”
The county has ordered evacuations in mountain areas with serious burn scars from the El Dorado and Apple fires in recent years.
“We’ve seen over this last rainy system immense amount of mudflow and debris flow going downhill in those areas,” McClintock said. “We have been preparing, but better safe than sorry, and we’re asking residents in those areas to heed those warnings.”
Officials urged residents to take the storm seriously and monitor forecast updates and ensure they have multiple methods of receiving warnings, including wireless emergency alerts, weather apps and local TV, radio and news stations. Los Angeles officials said they were ready to evacuate people if need be. Los Angeles Unified School District is assessing whether to cancel classes Monday.
At the Fuente de Agua Viva, a church in Mecca, 50 people gathered for the Sunday 11 a.m. service. The storm had not yet reached the Riverside town, although a light rain fell.
“How many are scared because of the hurricane,” Pedro Miranda, the minister asked, as he held up his arm for a show of hands. Nobody raised theirs.
Miranda had initially planned to hold the service outside, “but the Lord’s plan was for us to be here,” he said, before leading worshipers in a prayer for those in affected areas.
“We’re going to thank God because he is good,” Miranda said. “Our desert needs water.”
Among those attending the service was Olga Granados, who wore a black head covering with green trim. She said she hadn’t seen anything weather-wise to make her worry, just occasional rain.
“We’re calm here,” she said with a smile.
“We got 30 bags and no rain,” a young man complained outside the church, as he recounted to a friend that he’d stocked up on sandbags.
Fears of flooding, landslides and dangerous coastal rip currents prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency Saturday evening, and Bass signed a local emergency declaration.
There seemed to be little worry about the impending storm among some truckers in the Whitewater rest area, off the 10 Freeway in Riverside County.
Jose Gamero Lopez said his company, Supra National Express, sent a notice about the hurricane, but said he wasn’t worried.
“I am being careful, though, because the roads are slippery,” he said.
A few trucks over, Jeff Moore and his wife, Laura, were killing time before they had to pick up a load of Nestle water in Cabazon. From there, they planned to head to Casa Grande, Ariz.
The 52-year-old couple, who were driving from Las Vegas, said they hadn’t heard about the hurricane.
The pair had driven in worse weather, Laura chimed in, and at times when you couldn’t make out the lines on the road. Laura recalled a tornado that hit while they passed through New Mexico.
What did she do then?
“I just drove,” she said. She isn’t worried about the hurricane.
“God will take me when he wants me,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.