California towns dig out of the mud from first tropical storm in 84 years

A man sits in his car as he waits for a tow after it got stuck in the mud (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
A man sits in his car as he waits for a tow after it got stuck in the mud (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Crews in mountain and desert towns are working to clear away mud and debris in the aftermath of the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years.

The system was dissipating as it moved over the Rocky Mountains.

Hilary dumped record rainfall over California’s deserts, including in the stark Death Valley that experienced its single-rainiest day on record on Sunday.

Tropical Weather
Floodwater streams down from Mount Charleston in Mountain Springs, Nevada (Ty O’Neil/AP)

As Hilary moved nort-heast into the neighboring state of Nevada, flooding was reported, power was out and a boil-water order was issued for about 400 households in the Mount Charleston area, where the only road in and out was washed out. The area is about 40 miles west of Las Vegas.

Hilary first slammed into Mexico’s arid Baja California Peninsula as a hurricane, causing one death and widespread flooding before becoming a tropical storm. So far, no deaths, serious injuries or extreme damages have been reported in California, though officials warned that risks remain, especially in the mountainous regions where the wet hillsides could unleash mudslides.

In one dramatic scene, rescue officials in the desert community of Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, drove a bulldozer through mud to a swamped care home and rescued 14 residents by scooping them up and carrying them to safety, fire chief Michael Contreras said.

“We were able to put the patients into the scoop. It’s not something that I’ve ever done in my 34 years as a firefighter, but disasters like this really cause us to have to look at those means of rescue that aren’t in the book and that we don’t do everyday,” he said at a news conference.

It was one of 46 rescues the city performed between late Sunday night and the next afternoon from mud and water standing up to 5 feet.

Tropical Weather
Firefighters use a skip loader to rescue a resident from an assisted living centre in Cathedral City, California, after the street was flooded with mud (Mark J Terrill/AP)

Hilary is the latest potentially climate-related disaster to wreak havoc across the US, Canada and Mexico. Hawaii’s island of Maui is still reeling from a blaze that killed more than 100 people, making it the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century. Firefighters in Canada are battling that nation’s worst fire season on record.

Hot water and hot air were both crucial factors that enabled Hilary’s rapid growth — steering it on an unusual but not quite unprecedented path that dumped rain in some normally bone-dry places.

The wet weather might stave off wildfires for a few weeks in Southern California and in parts of the Sierra Nevadas, but widespread rain is not expected in the most fire-prone areas, University of California, Los Angeles, climate scientist Daniel Swain said in an online briefing on Monday.

Flooding and mudslides were reported across Southern California’s inland desert and mountain areas.

Tropical Storm How Hilary Happened
Maura Taura surveys the damaged cause by a tree downed by Tropical Storm Hilary outside her home in Sun Valley, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

In the San Bernardino Mountains, crews worked to clear mud that blocked the homes of about 800 residents, California fire battalion chief Alison Hesterly said.

Hilary shattered daily rain records in San Diego and dumped the equivalent of a full year’s worth on Death Valley National Park, forcing the park to be closed indefinitely and leaving about 400 people sheltering at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs until roads could be made passable, park officials said.

It was the rainiest day on record on Sunday as the storm hit dumping 2.2 inches on the desert area, according to John Adair, senior meteorologist at NWS Las Vegas.

A tropical storm last roared into California in September 1939, ripping apart train tracks, tearing houses from their foundations and capsizing many boats. Nearly 100 people were killed on land and at sea.

Elsewhere, Tropical Storm Harold made landfall on the South Texas coast on Tuesday, where it is expected to bring wind gusts of up to 50mph in areas along the US-Mexico border and produce 2 to 4 inches of rain with some isolated amounts of up to 6 inches in South Texas until Wednesday.