The Los Angeles Times is reporting that San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department officials have confirmed that there have 12 deaths in the county’s mountain towns since a major snow storm hit the area February 23, dumping up to 12 feet of snow. Spokesperson Mara Rodriguez says they’ve only officially linked one death (in a traffic accident) to the weather, but residents who’ve found friends or family members dead in their homes told the Times that if the weather didn’t directly cause their deaths, it was a contributing factor.
As we’ve been reporting since Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s response to life-threatening conditions in mountain communities throughout the state has been subpar, but the worst response has been in the San Bernardino Mountains just northeast of Los Angeles. Though a state emergency declaration was issued March 2, as of Wednesday morning multiple area residents were on record saying they haven’t seen the National Guard or any state-based response in their communities, on day 15 since the storm hit, and day 15 since many of them had power.
Michelle Hake, President of the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, has been advocating for more government assistance to the mountain communities in responding to the disaster and organizing food distribution to those in need. Due to snow-clogged roads that hadn’t been plowed, neither she or her parents were able to reach her sister, who’d been snowed in inside her Big Bear home, approximately 20 miles away.
She “needed medical attention in the midst of the storm, and we could not get that to her,” Hake said. Her family called for an emergency wellness check Monday.
“We were too late,” she said.
Deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department found Hake’s sister dead just after 9 a.m., agency spokesperson Mara Rodriguez said. A cause of death has not been determined, but Rodriguez said there were no signs of trauma or suspicious circumstances.
Hake, who requested that her adult sister not be identified, declined to expound on her sister’s medical history or what might have led to her death. But she said she had no doubt that her sister would have gotten the care she needed had the storms not trapped her inside.
“We were trying to get someone to go check on her,” Hake said. “There was literally no access to get to her; she lives alone. And for so many that are [stuck] in their homes, that is their story.”
Two other people were found dead in their homes through official welfare checks since the storm hit, and others have been found dead by their friends or family members. We don’t know all of their names and stories yet, since additional family members are likely being notified. And sadly, there are likely more people currently dead in their homes who have not been found yet. But as their names and stories are known we will publish them, because their deaths were entirely preventable and should not be forgotten.
We do know about Dolly Avenatti, and what happened to her is heartbreaking and should enrage us all.
In Crestline’s Skyland community, Rhea-Frances Tetley said her 93-year-old neighbor, Elinor “Dolly” Avenatti, was found dead Tuesday.
Avenatti may have been elderly, Tetley said, but she was lively and a fixture in their community.
“She was a joy for the neighborhood,” Tetley said. “She was feisty and independent … and generous to a fault.”
Avenatti was active in senior citizens groups, baked for neighbors, walked daily before the storm and collected bottles and cans to make donations to animal rights groups, Tetley said.
She worried that a week without power, stuck in her cold house alone behind mounds of snow, might have been what killed Avenatti. Tetley said neighbors had been delivering food and checking in on the woman for about a week, but on Monday — the day their street regained electricity — the nonagenarian didn’t answer her door. On Tuesday, neighbors went in and found her dead.
“She didn’t have heat,” Tetley said. “I think that she froze to death in the house.”
Tetley said that soon after Avenatti’s body was found, their street was finally plowed, because emergency officials needed to respond to the death.
Another area resident, Laura Johnson of Big Bear, told the city council that her friend died during the storms because his home couldn’t be accessed by a dialysis provider, and officials would not allow a driver to come up the mountain to pick him up and take him to dialysis.
“They would not allow the driver to come up and pick up my friend who needed dialysis three days out of the week,” Johnson said. “And he passed.”
Aaron Creighton of Crestline told the Times that an elderly neighbor who lives across the street from him was found dead Wednesday morning. While the neighbor had been sick for awhile, Creighton attributed his quick decline to the stress from the storm.
“There’s the stuff that does you harm right away and its obvious, and then there’s the stress that comes with this kind of stuff,” Creighton said, who is the owner and publisher of the community’s hyper-local newspaper, the Alpine Mountaineer. “It’s incredibly stressful to not be able to get out of the house.”
“It’s not the end of it,” Creighton said. “We have a lot of people that are completely and utterly cut off and stranded right now.”
Megan Vasquez, who lives in Valley of Enchantment, said she’s heard of two people found dead in the storm. She believes the death toll will eventually be much higher.
“I do feel like there is going to be a large body count when it’s all said and done. There are many elderly people who are kind of reclusive in their homes with nothing, and there will be more people who have passed.”
Kristy Baltezore, who was mentioned in Tuesday night’s story, said they’ve yet to make contact with about half of the people in the community and fears what they will find.
Hake, the Crestline Chamber of Commerce president, said during one wellness check the group facilitated a neighbor found an elderly man who’d been rationing one frozen tamale for five days. They were able to get him help, but Hake says, “I don’t think people know how dire it is right now. We are literally trying to find people like my sister, people who are in their homes, and their life is hanging in the balance. It feels like we are living in an alternate reality up here.”
A volunteer pilot with CalDART told RedState Wednesday evening that all helicopter flights have been postponed until Tuesday as the next approaching storm has made conditions unsafe. Ground crews are still attempting to find and rescue as many people as they can and bring them to shelters before that storm, which is supposed to be a massive amount of rain, not snow, and cause flooding, hits.
Meanwhile, Gavin Newsom is still silent on the issue. Here’s what he’s talking about instead:
A bill that will empower government employees to deny marriage licenses to LGBTQ & interracial couples.
That. JUST. Passed.
Wake up America.
The @GOP are rolling back decades of progress RIGHT NOW.
We must call out this blatant bigotry for what it is. https://t.co/pnoGdZ0YPI
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) March 9, 2023
And, he’s continuing his killing agenda.
We’re serious about not investing in companies that cave to the extremist agenda of the @GOP. https://t.co/r5JX09SsZW
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) March 8, 2023
Newsom was slated to make a “major announcement” with Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday, then it was announced that he’d tested positive for Covid again after experiencing mild symptoms upon return from Cabo.
Between the time I tweeted about the 12 deaths — and the tweet started going viral — and publication of this story, Newsom’s official account announced a state of emergency in 21 additional counties, and in the press release crowed that “more than 57 Caltrans employees operating 40 high-powered pieces of equipment, including snowplows, graders, loaders and dump trucks, have removed more than 12.6 million cubic yards of snow off state highways as of March 8, which equates to more than 3,800 Olympic-size swimming pools.” There was no mention of any search and rescue efforts or requests for federal assistance. Undoubtedly the loved ones of those who froze or starved to death in their homes, or died of renal failure for lack of dialysis treatment, will be grateful for Newsom’s effort.