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‘A shameful situation’: Snowbound San Bernardino Mountain residents demand answers

Officials knew the mountains of San Bernardino County were going to be hit by a severe storm days before a record-breaking blizzard hit.

But they found themselves unprepared for the record amount of snow and the disruption it would bring. More than 100 inches of snow fell in back-to-back storms over the course of a few days, shutting down most mountain roads and stranding several communities, some for nearly two weeks since.

Some of the snowplows available to local officials proved no match for the massive accumulation of snow. And with much of California also experiencing record-breaking winter weather, supplemental supplies from other counties were unavailable, officials said.

The series of storms and the damage they inflicted on mountain communities proved to be a harsh lesson for local officials who were tested like never before by the extraordinary challenges.

“The unique and challenging part of this storm was that it hit so many parts of our state simultaneously that you can’t move the crew from other parts of the state that are trying to keep their vital highways open,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman. from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

He called the storms that hit the higher elevations of San Bernardino unprecedented and particularly difficult to respond to.

“It really is a street fight, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Ferguson said.

It wasn’t until earlier this week that many roads were finally cleared and residents, some short on food and medicine, were able to get out. Others remain stranded and frustrated by delays in clearing their paths.

“It’s an embarrassing situation because if you watch the local news, you’re going to see reports saying the county has its boots on and they’re running everything,” said Megan Vasquez, who lives in Crestline. “My street wasn’t cleaned until this morning.”

She and others from surrounding communities wonder why officials weren’t better prepared. She said a private resident, not the county, swept the street in her neighborhood Tuesday morning.

“It definitely felt like we were being forgotten,” said Vásquez, who helped start a food distribution center for her neighborhood after many couldn’t make it to the county one. “It’s been a very discouraging time to see the lack of … officials actually coming in and trying to do something for this area.”

Some officials have already recognized the need to learn from the storm.

“Hindsight is always 2020,” San Bernardino County Executive Director Leonard Hernandez said during a recent video briefing. “While I think the team did an amazing job mobilizing earlier, if the National Weather Service issues a blizzard warning again, we will immediately take a different approach.”

But the strength of the storms was also new to the county: Prior to the arrival of the initial system, the San Diego weather service office issued its first blizzard warning for the region.

“We’ve never had one before,” Hernandez said Thursday during a live stream on County Supervisor Dawn Rowe’s Facebook page. “We have a pretty established playbook of the different types of disasters in the county, unfortunately, since we’re so big. We have forest fires, we have earthquakes, we have floods, we have acts of terror. Well, now we can add Blizzard to our playbook.”

So much snow fell so fast that it rendered front plows normally used for routine road maintenance ineffective, authorities said earlier. And there was not enough time to request additional equipment from other jurisdictions, although it likely would not have been available since Northern California was also dealing with heavy snowfall, they added.

“The warning we had for the blizzard was not weeks,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said during a recent news conference. “We only knew for 24 to 36 hours that there was a huge potential for this to happen.”

San Bernardino County “planned days in advance, mobilized our entire workforce, brought in every contractor we had available” in anticipation of winter weather, Hernandez said. But in terms of snowfall, “it was beyond the worst case scenario.”

“You have our commitment as an organization that there are many lessons that we are going to learn from this,” he said.

Adam Roser, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the San Diego office, said there was an “adequate advisory” even before a blizzard warning was issued.

Daily weather reports were sent to different partners, including county emergency management, city emergency managers and fire departments, Roser said. A winter storm warning was also issued before the blizzard warning was issued.

In the seven days leading up to March 2, more than 150 inches of snow fell near Running Springs, while 134 inches fell in areas east of Big Bear Lake and 115 inches northeast of Mt. Baldy, according to the Bureau of San Diego from the National Weather Service. . Lake Arrowhead got about 110 inches and Crestline about 100, while the city of Big Bear Lake saw about 85 inches. Forest Falls and Wrightwood received around 70 and 60 inches, respectively.

The California Department of Transportation began preparing last week by placing de-icing agents on state highways, inspecting snowmobiles and cleaning storm drains, according to Eric Dionne, a spokesman for Caltrans.

“With all of that being said, as an organization, we will do evaluations and see where we could have improved,” he said.

More equipment from Caltrans was also brought into the mountainous regions before the storm began, he added.

“We advised the traveling public that travel was strongly discouraged, but still a lot came up,” Dionne said. “There were a lot of abandoned cars on our infrastructure that really reduced production and snow removal efforts.”

While the state is responsible for clearing major roads, other roads fall under the county’s purview. There are also privately owned roads that residents are often responsible for clearing themselves.

Through Tuesday, San Bernardino County the officials said 91% of the county’s roads have been cleared, though San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Mike McClintock said that includes roads that can still accommodate single-lane traffic and still need to be widened.

That’s not to mention the challenge of where to place plowed snow, which authorities say has become an ongoing problem.

“The huge amount of snow that has fallen on our roads, where do you put it?” McClintock said. “Everywhere there is 10 feet of snow… there aren’t many places to put snow.”

Big Bear Lake, the only incorporated city between San Bernardino’s highest peaks, has fared relatively better after the storms, which some officials attributed to two factors: It received less snow than its neighbors to the west, such as Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, and had more resources ready to respond quickly.

“It’s not to take anything away from our fellow county partners and agencies, but they have a much larger area to accommodate,” said Mayor Randall Putz. “We have that advantage.”

He said the city has full control over its six square miles, including budget, resources and personnel, while hard-hit areas like Lake Arrowhead or Running Springs are served by the county. With its own public works crew, contractors, rented equipment and a 24-hour response, more of Big Bear Lake’s roads were cleared faster, though it’s still a work in progress, officials said. As of Monday, most were passable, though not their full width, and many driveways remained blocked by berms.

“This is basically what we think about every winter, it’s not a surprise to us,” said Rick Herrick, a Big Bear Lake council member. “We want the roads to open up, our visitors to be able to get on and businesses to flourish.”

Meanwhile, communities across California are still reeling from a winter that brought not just a blanket of snow, but record rainfall and disastrous flooding.

“What we are seeing here, again, is just another example of the challenges we face as a state due to a changing climate: the whiplash of extreme heat followed by torrential rain followed by snow followed by drought,” Ferguson said. “So we continue to evolve as a state to meet this need, but disasters continue to become more frequent and more severe.”

Although progress has been made in recent days, the job is far from over.

Rachelle Angere of Crestline spent the past six days without power. She and hers Jack Russell terrier, Bully, were snowed in at a friend’s house. They burned a lot of paper and wood.

“When we ran out of wood, I was digging in the snow looking for more wood to burn,” Angere said Tuesday while picking up food at a county-operated food distribution site at the Crestline Library.

His power was back on Monday night and the roads around his neighborhood were cleared early in the morning. But the roads leading to her home remained blocked, and she blames the county for not acting sooner to clear them.

“If they had plowed from the start, every few hours, it wouldn’t be as dramatic as it is now,” Angere said. “I was on tour and it was just ridiculous.”

You can walk down the main street of Crestline, but you are worried that if you leave to go down the mountain for supplies, you may not be able to return.

“I feel trapped here,” she said as she carried a loaf of bread and several boxes of food.