A tropical storm came to the desert, and migrant farmers faced a new danger

Two men work to try and to divert floodwaters.
Rafael Nuñez, 29, right, and Isabel Ramirez, 23, work to prop up a piece of roofing to try to divert floodwaters from his mobile home as Tropical Storm Hilary dumps torrential rain Sunday in Thermal, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

As the rain began to pour down Sunday afternoon, Rafael Nuñez got the uneasy feeling he was unprepared.

He stepped outside to see rivers running down both sides of his rural road in Thermal, a farming community in the Coachella Valley. He pulled a piece of sheet metal from his storage shed to divert the water away from his mobile home, and propped it up with bags of fertilizer.

But his makeshift levee was feeble, the little rivers were growing, and the storm was expected to get much worse.

A woman watches as rain pushes flood waters into her driveway.
Maria Elena Zaragoza watches as heavy rains push floodwaters into her driveway in Thermal.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

His neighbor, Maria Elena Zaragoza, used a blue dust pan to bail water collecting in front of her home, and muttered that sandbags would have helped. It wasn’t that she had not heard about Hurricane Hilary.

“We didn’t listen,” she said. “We didn’t think it was true.”

Like many Californians, they were quickly learning that the slow tempo of a tropical storm’s approach did not diminish how quickly it could become dangerous. In a place where natural disasters usually hit with little or no warning, many here grew complacent watching this unfamiliar blob on a map wobble north for five days.


Tropical Storm Hilary rolled into Southern California, bringing steady, often heavy rain and ‘life-threatening’ flooding.

Aug. 20, 2023

But time was up.

As night approached Sunday, the Coachella Valley faced a particularly dire threat of flooding, with its nearly flat floor draining two 10,000-foot-plus mountain ranges as it slowly descends below sea level to the Salton Sea. While wealthier communities like Palm Springs and La Quinta hug the mountains, poor farming communities such as Mecca and Thermal lie at the low center, with many people living in dilapidated housing and trailer parks at risk of being swept away.

At midday, with sporadic rain, many residents and visitors interviewed were somewhat blase about the danger. Others were anxious but by no means panicked, and some were a little excited about experiencing the strange tropical weather.

A woman stands on a wooden pallet after flood waters flowed towards her mobile home.
Isabel Ramirez watches the flooded scene near her mobile home in Thermal.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As Nuñez fashioned his sheet metal barrier, Homero Francisco, 37, splashed in the water in a pair of blue slides.

“I’m enjoying the rain,” he said, beaming. He didn’t care that a foot of water had accumulated outside his mobile home, making it impossible to leave in a car. “Es una chulada la agua.” It’s a beautiful thing the water.

In Indio, Joseph Cereros, 15, and his older brother had slogged around all morning Saturday looking for sandbags. Home Depot was out, as was store after store. After five hours of looking, the boys found empty bags and a sand pile at City Hall, and started shoveling.

Now the air was heavy with moisture but the rain was light, and Cereros had his doubts about his grandmother’s concern of a hurricane coming to flood the family patio.

But everything felt a bit upside down: A hurricane was going to deluge the desert, which was suddenly short on sand.

By noon, with no downpours yet, Cereros was perturbed.

“We got 30 bags of sand and no rain has come,” he huffed. “It’s annoying.”

Roads across Southern California are already beginning to flood after a morning of steady rain. A few places have also reported small mudslides.

Aug. 20, 2023

He didn’t know what people on the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts know: The wait is long. People hover over their screens watching the dreaded “cone of uncertainty” on the National Hurricane map day after day. The air gets thick. The sky darkens. A light rain comes with a hot salty wind. The storm shutters start rattling. Then it all goes haywire.

At the Fuente de Agua Viva in Mecca, 50 people gathered for the 11 a.m. Sunday service. A warm breeze rustled through the dead palm trees.


“How many are scared because of the hurricane?” Pedro Miranda, the minister asked, as he held up his arm for a show of hands. No one raised theirs.

The church had planned to camp Saturday night in the mountains and do the Sunday service there, but the weather forecast kept them at home.

“We’re going to thank God, because he is good,” Miranda said. “Our desert needs water.”

A man stays dry under a big-rig truck.
A Thermal resident stays dry under a big rig as Hilary pummeled the region Sunday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At a truck stop on Interstate 10, around Whitewater, Jose Gamero Lopez, 37, hustled back to his red truck, in a T-shirt, shorts and slides, after stopping for a restroom break as a light drizzle fell.

The Rialto resident was heading to Long Beach from Houston. His company sent a notice about the hurricane, but he hasn’t worried about the rain, because he drove for six years in El Salvador, where he lived through a hurricane and lots of rain.

He’s actually happy there will be more water for the trees.

“What surprised me is that there’s a hurricane in summer,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it!”


Jeff Moore and his wife, Laura, were killing time at the truck stop before they had to pick up a load of Nestle water in Cabazon. From there, they planned to head to Casa Grande, Ariz.

Tropical Storm Hilary threatens heavy rains, flash flooding, high winds and intense surf across Southern California this weekend. Here’s what to expect.

Aug. 20, 2023

The couple, who were driving from Las Vegas, said they hadn’t heard about the hurricane.

“We just drive, we don’t listen too much to the weather,” he said.

The pair had driven in worse weather, his wife chimed in, at times when you couldn’t make out the lines on the road. She recalled a tornado that hit while they passed through New Mexico. “I just drove,” she said.

She isn’t worried about the hurricane.

“God will take me when he wants me,” she said.

Outside of Leon’s Meat Market in Mecca, Hector Vasquez, 55, paid $2 to fill up jugs of water so his six grandkids would have something to drink during the storm. He had gone to Costco on Saturday but couldn’t find a parking spot and soon gave up.

Vasquez, who lives in a mobile home in the unincorporated community, is worried about a heavy rain because of the lack of drainage. Already on Saturday he’d had to use a broom to sweep water away from the home that’s shared by seven.

Vazquez, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, has been accustomed to dry weather — both there and here in the desert.

“This is going to be the most difficult day,” he said, as he looked up at a sky threatening rain. “It’s about to start.”


He cited power poles that went down in Thermal and at least briefly knocked out power for residents there. The family has purchased battery-powered lamps from Home Depot in case the power goes out, so the children won’t be scared. The youngest one is a year old. “We have to be prepared so we can see at night,” he said.

As for how his family would spend the day? “Encerrados.” Locked in.

A woman wears plastic bags on her feet as she traverses through flood waters carrying beer.
Nannie Auclair wears plastic bags over her shoes as she traverses through floodwaters carrying a case of beer in Thermal.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Juana Carlos, 57, exited the market carrying a carton of 20 large eggs. She didn’t buy much that day, but her daughters had already bought a generator Friday to prepare.

She’s lived here since 2005 and there have been storms in the past, but nothing like what’s been warned this time.

“I’m a little worried,” said Carlos, who recently finished working in the grape harvest.

Eddie Leon, who has run the market for 20 years, cashed farmworkers’ checks from local growers and rang them up for Bud Lights, energy drinks, salsa verde and pan dulce.

“Todo bien?” a customer asked.

“Todo bien,” Leon replied automatically, then paused. “I think so.”