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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In several California communities, recovery efforts continue after the storm

Vehicles trapped in mud in Cathedral City

By Sergio Olmos, Maggie Miles and Corina Knoll

Most regions of Southern California avoided significant damage this week from Tropical Storm Hilary, but authorities continued their rescue and cleanup efforts in several mountain and desert communities where homes were flooded and fast-moving mudslides had washed away sections of roadway and stranded residents.

In one desperate situation, crews were searching for a 75-year-old woman who has been missing for nearly two days in the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Christie Rockwood, who lived in a trailer home in a tiny community known as Seven Oaks, had not been heard from since Sunday evening, when she spoke to a friend by phone, according to her daughter Tracey Monteverde.

“I’m trying to hold out hope, but it’s really hard,” Monteverde, 56, said. “I just can’t imagine her being out there with no food and water, probably injured.”

Remote communities dot the San Bernardino Mountains, sought out for their idyllic setting and inexpensive housing about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. But the rustic surroundings can work against those living there, who often find themselves under the threat of fire or mud, or even snow. Thirteen people died in the San Bernardino Mountains in March after they were trapped by several feet of snow following intense storms.

Rockwood, a retired accountant for a Riverside County school district, had owned her trailer for several decades, using it as a weekend vacation spot until she moved in full time about 10 years ago, her daughter said. A local fixture known for her good-natured disposition, she often hosted people around the fire pit on her deck, playing cards and horseshoes late into the night. She was in good health, although her right knee troubled her. By Tuesday, residents reported no sign of Rockwood’s trailer.

The tropical storm had prompted the Santa Ana River to overflow, sending rocks and debris into Seven Oaks, a canyon that remains under an evacuation order, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. After a bridge was wiped out, about 30 residents were stranded on a riverbank, cut off from access to a main road. They were ordered to shelter in place Sunday.

“Boulders the size of a car were rolling down, taking trees and snapping them like toothpicks,” said Randy Foster, a Seven Oaks resident who was rescued by helicopter Tuesday.

Several people who remained in Seven Oaks on Tuesday said they were unaware that the community was required to evacuate before the storm arrived. They said that authorities typically delivered evacuation orders to them in person because they were so remote, but that this time around that had not happened.

Officials with the San Bernardino County Fire Department said rescue teams determined Monday that it was too hazardous to try to cross the rushing water that had cut off the community and they instead hoisted a woman with a lower leg injury into a hovering helicopter. Others declined to be rescued, wanting to wait until the waters receded.

On Tuesday, crews hiked in and cleared a path to create a landing zone for a helicopter that, by late afternoon, had lifted out nearly two dozen people in multiple trips. Some firefighters carried residents’ dogs, scrambling onto fallen trees as they forded the rushing river.

The most populous regions of Southern California closer to the coast — Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego — suffered few serious problems from Tropical Storm Hilary beyond downed power lines, fallen trees and minor street flooding. State and local officials generally expressed relief this week that they had avoided a catastrophe after having feared the worst. There had been no reports of deaths related to the storm as of Tuesday afternoon.

About 70 miles southeast, in the Coachella Valley desert region, residents were struggling with a much different effect from the storm. In Cathedral City, home to about 50,000 people, mud choked the thoroughfares. Those who attempted to traverse the knee-high sludge found themselves sinking and becoming stuck. A blistering sun and temperatures that nearly reached triple digits only added to their frustration.

Dozens of cars and trucks that had once floated down driveways into streets were mired in a thick river of brown. Homeowners who had made every attempt to keep water from surging inside were left to shovel out the muck. Outside one house, a telling scene: a boat that had been swept up onto the lawn.

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