Safety concerns and weather conditions hamper San Bernardino County relief efforts
A volunteer helicopter operation ferrying in badly needed supplies to beleaguered communities in the San Bernardino Mountains was shut down by authorities as desperation among residents continued to grow Saturday in the aftermath of storms that dumped historic amounts of snow.
Four helicopters with CalDART, a nonprofit organization that has coordinated aerial disaster relief efforts across California, had partnered with residents to deliver food, medicine and other supplies Friday amid perfect flying conditions.
But the effort was halted early Friday afternoon by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department because of safety concerns. The department said in a statement that a helicopter tried to land in a parking lot crowded with people waiting for supplies.
The department said that it had escorted vehicles with supplies from CalDART to mountain communities.
“The county is doing nothing to help the people here,” said Lisa Griggs, a Blue Jay resident who was among dozens of volunteers delivering food, baby formula and shovels that had been flown in. “We are in dire straits.”
She and other residents have grown increasingly outraged by the failure of officials to clear snow from roads, which has left them stranded for more than a week and unable to get basic necessities. San Bernardino County officials have acknowledged that they were unprepared for the back-to-back storms that created epic blizzard conditions.
“It’s a shame because as locals we knew the county and the state weren’t able to keep up with the demands,” said Zach Oliver, 37, a Crestline resident who helped organize the aerial operation.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino County and a dozen other counties hard hit by severe storms, an action intended to free up state resources such as the National Guard to assist with response efforts.
On Saturday, desperate San Bernardino County residents were wondering when National Guard troops would arrive. Residents said hundreds of people have lined up for food, dog food and firewood in recent days at community distribution events. Many of them left empty-handed, according to residents who spoke to The Times.
Paul Marshall, 65, president of CalDART and a licensed pilot, said the Sheriff’s Department had told the organization on Saturday that it could resume operations, but he added that flying conditions were not safe because of high winds and low clouds.
James Brotherton, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Saturday that it was expected to be cloudy through the weekend, with a 20% chance of snow flurries. Temperatures will remain in the teens, and wind gusts up to 40 mph are likely in the mountain areas, he said.
“That could definitely be a concern for helicopters,” Brotherton said. “The winds will be pretty strong.”
The weather situation was especially frustrating for Ronald Lovick, 72, a retired law enforcement pilot who was helping fly one of the helicopters that had been delivering supplies for CalDART since Thursday. The conditions, he said, were ideal for aerial operations.
“A sheriff’s captain decided it was more important to play nitty-gritty legal games,” Lovick said. “It’s tragic.”
Griggs on Friday had loaded her all-wheel-drive SUV with supplies and was headed to Cedar Glen east of Lake Arrowhead. As she barreled along Rim of the World Highway with her 16-year-old son, he experienced an epileptic seizure.
She said she began honking her horn at a California Highway Patrol cruiser just ahead of her. The officer stopped and called medical crews, who responded to help her son. Then early Saturday, she said, her neighbor had to be rescued by firefighters after his roof collapsed from the weight of the snow that had buried his property.
“I feel everything that I see so deeply,” she said, adding that the overall experience has left her “heartbroken.”
The state became involved after residents started calling Newsom’s office and the Office of Emergency Services and reaching out on social media for help, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Services.
“It’s highly unusual for Californians to reach out directly seeking aid during times of crisis,” Ferguson said. “It certainly was a sign that this was a dangerous event that was unfolding in San Bernardino County.”
About three dozen high-clearance trucks and crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are also on the ground supporting search and rescue efforts. OES personnel are helping with logistics and aiding the San Bernardino County Emergency Operations Center.
Oliver, the Crestline resident, said Saturday that Cal Fire had delivered more than two dozen pallets of food, which local volunteers were distributing to neighbors stranded in their homes.
“There are still people trapped in their homes with no food or medicine,” he said. “We were cut off from the world. We had to get food here.”
Residents said two of the three main grocery stores in the area were shut down after their roofs were damaged by the weight of piled-up snow. Access to the third store in Lake Arrowhead was imperiled by multiple gas line leaks, according to residents.
Crestline resident Max Strawn, 30, was among dozens of community volunteers who had stepped up to help their neighbors.
He said he waded through waist-high snow to deliver boxes of groceries to people with disabilities and elderly residents in the area.
“These are only the ones we know about,” he said. “I know there’s people we’re missing.”
He and other residents had heard that the National Guard might be coming to help and they wondered when that might happen.
“We’re really hoping for the National Guard to assist us,” Strawn said. “We were expecting it, but we’re not getting it.”
Dawn Diggle, 42, who lives in the Valley of Enchantment in Crestline, said streets in her neighborhood were finally cleared Saturday of about 6 feet of snow that had piled up for more than a week.
On Friday, about 1,000 people showed up at a store for food boxes that never arrived.
“Everyone left empty-handed,” Diggle said. “All this bureaucracy is really slowing things down.”
The situation had improved Saturday, she said, adding that she and other volunteers had handed out boxes of milk, pasta, beans, rice and canned goods that had arrived from the state to about 500 people. She said a restaurant also delivered cheeses, fresh peppers and deli meats that she and other volunteers divided into freezer bags for residents.
“Everybody is desperate,” she said.
Times staff writers Benjamin Oreskes and Nathan Solis contributed to this report.
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