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Assessing the damage of Tropical Storm Hilary

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to start right here in Los Angeles, where a lot of people, including myself, spent the last couple of days really anxious about the arrival of Tropical Storm Hilary. It was the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in more than 80 years. The storm dropped record-breaking rainfall on a region that's just not used to that - as much as 7 inches in some mountain regions and up to 4 inches in lower-lying areas. To talk more about how Tropical Storm Hilary affected the Southern California region, we're joined now by NPR's Liz Baker, who, like me, rode out the storm in LA yesterday. Hey, Liz.

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I want to talk about how seriously people here were taking this because I went to the grocery store, Vons, you know, on Saturday to stock up on drinking water. I wasn't sure if my water supply would run out. And I get to Vons. The parking lot is packed. Like, every cash register had a line snaking down the grocery store aisle. People had carts full of gallons of water. I mean, people were so anxious about this storm. But now that it's left California, tell us, what was the extent of the damage?

BAKER: Well, so far, not nearly - excuse me - not nearly as much as we feared. In her press conference today, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said there were actually no known deaths or injuries caused by the storm, which is amazing if you think about how big it was. Although I do want to put an enormous asterisk on that because it's still really early after the storm. There's a very real possibility that we're going to get reports of casualties in the coming days. And we do know that at least one person did die in Mexico.

CHANG: Right.

BAKER: And, you know, some of the areas that were worst affected are really remote, high desert and mountain communities. And we're not really going to be able to hear some of those scary stories. You know, we're hearing some of those come out today. But as those areas become more accessible, we'll start to hear more of those. But in general, the mood in Southern California today is one of cautious relief. Here's LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who I think summed it up really well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Some will say that we dodged the bullet. I will say we dodged a weather bomb.

BAKER: Yeah. And Carvalho used to be the superintendent at Miami-Dade, so he would know.

CHANG: No stranger to hurricanes.

BAKER: Yeah. But school is out today while crews inspect the buildings for damage and make sure roads are clear enough for buses to pass because there are still some road closures, especially in the valleys and out towards the high desert. There are some pretty remarkable videos online of mudflows and raging waters. There's been some power outages, especially in Riverside County, which is inland and extends far into the desert beyond Joshua Tree to the Arizona border. A couple cities out that way reported 911 outages. And there was a report of a flooded hospital out there as well.

My colleague at KCVR, Madison Aument, in the Inland Empire, reports mudslides, debris flows and flash flooding resulted in a shelter in place and then evacuation orders last night in San Bernardino. And those were primarily communities that were near the 2020 El Dorado Fire burn scar, which is extra dangerous because the water just runs right off those burn scars.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, for the most part, a lot of this region did manage to avoid catastrophe. Do we know why it ended up not being as bad as expected?

BAKER: A little bit. Well, I spoke with Daniel Swain just a little while ago. He's a climate scientist at UCLA. And I asked him if, in hindsight, maybe the forecast was a little overhyped. And he told me it was actually the opposite.

DANIEL SWAIN: Especially given that the prediction was to exceed August - in some cases, all-time summer record rainfall levels in Southern California and southern Nevada - and the fact that that happened, that's a pretty big forecast success.

BAKER: Yeah. So those rainfall totals were just crushed like all over the place. We've gotten record August rainfall, record summer rainfall, some places record all-time rainfall. But that forecast is what enabled Southern California residents to brace for the worst because the message even days before was stay home, stay off the roads, get prepared. And that really does seem to be heeded, which I was really surprised to see that.

CHANG: So was I.

BAKER: Yeah. As you said, I mean, these are the people who will face down an earthquake without sweating, so yeah.

CHANG: Exactly. Third quake, by the way, yesterday, I did not even feel. But anyway.

BAKER: I didn't feel it, either. But I still got under my desk. I'm not messing around with earthquakes.

CHANG: I don't blame you.

BAKER: Yeah. But earthquakes might be common around here, but tropical cyclones are relatively super rare. There's been maybe two to five that we know of ever. The last one to hit was in the 1930s. And so I think that, plus seeing how damaging hurricanes and tropical storms have been in other parts of the country, made Californians really take this a lot more seriously than maybe they would have if this had been a few years ago, for instance. So yeah.

CHANG: You know, as you said, we don't know the extent of the damage from this storm yet, but I am thinking especially about all the unhoused people in LA who are so vulnerable in weather like this. How did they fare? How much do we know?

BAKER: We don't know a lot. I know that the Homeless Services Authority is going around trying to figure that out. Today, there's eight shelters for unhoused people that are open. And they also started a really early effort on Thursday, long before the rain started, to get the word out to people who were camped in areas along riverbanks and along creek beds, because those are really dangerous spots where normally it doesn't look so bad, but once that water comes down, you better be out of there.

CHANG: That's right. That is NPR's Liz Baker in Los Angeles. Thank you so much, Liz.

BAKER: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Liz Baker
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.
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