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Climate and Environment

Snow-Slammed Mountain Residents Struggle To Recover As Yet Another Storm Hits

Snow covers a mountain range with a grid of buildings and neighborhoods in front it
A new storm is dumping snow this week on winter-weary residents in the San Bernardino Mountains.
(Eva Hambach
AFP via Getty Images)
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Thomas McKenzie spent 15 days at the Red Cross shelter in Crestline after his roof cracked under the weight of the record-setting February snow that fell in the San Bernardino Mountains. Now McKenzie, who is on a fixed income, is finding it difficult to navigate the complicated web of agencies that could provide assistance. He has no home computer and has cognitive impairment after suffering a stroke several years ago.

"I don't know where to go to get help for this stuff," McKenzie said in an interview through his flip phone earlier this week.

To make matters worse, a new storm this week is expected to dump up to a foot of snow on winter-weary mountain residents. McKenzie had been relying this past week on the sun to melt the 8 inches of snow that he said was still on his damaged roof from last week's storm.

"I'm still worried about getting the snow removed, I'm worried about the next snow, I'm just worried about my house getting repaired," McKenzie said. "It's like a carnival ride over here."

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A man with light-tone skin and a short white beard stands in an open doorway. Behind him is a sagging eave and in the background a snow-covered deck.
Twin Peaks resident Thomas McKenzie was evacuated from his home for 15 days after part of the roof cracked. Now he's struggling to navigate the process to get it fixed.
(Jill Replogle

It's unclear just how many mountain residents could be in similar circumstances, but local social media pages and individual residents interviewed by LAist are full of stories of people unable to recover from the winter storms and confused about how to access government aid.

About the mountain communities
  • About 35,000 residents live in the mountain communities above San Bernardino, according to U.S. Census data. Those communities include Crestline, Running Springs, Twin Peaks, Blue Jay, Rimforest, Lake Arrowhead, Skyforest, Cedar Glen and Big Bear.

  • While massive snowfall hit the whole area, some of the smaller communities appear to be struggling more with recovery.

"A lot of people are still struggling," said Michelle Solem, who teaches science at Mary Putnam Henck Intermediate School in Lake Arrowhead. She said that other than updates from the Rim of the World School District, information has been scarce.

"Our elderly, especially the ones that are not tech savvy … they're the ones that are honestly sitting here like absolutely terrified, not knowing what's going on," she said.

Battered buildings, elusive help to rebuild

Building inspectors have red-tagged 68 homes, meaning they're not safe to enter, according to San Bernardino County spokesperson David Wert. Inspectors have yellow-tagged 196 homes, including McKenzie’s.

A yellow tag means the structure has suffered partial damage. Inspectors determine which parts of the house are safe and unsafe to inhabit, as in McKenzie's case, or that occupants shouldn't stay in the house but can get their essential stuff out.

McKenzie, who wasn't at home when his house was yellow-tagged, said he's worried about his sagging roof, especially when he has to stand under the cracked eave to try to clear snow off the roof to prevent further damage.

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"Every so often you hear the snow hit and again the house shakes a little bit," he said.

But McKenzie also doesn't want to be displaced again.

Where to find the latest information

The county recently staged local assistance centers, intended to be a one-stop shop for disaster assistance and information, in Crestline, Running Springs and Wrightwood. McKenzie went to the one in Crestline two days in a row — by bus, because his car was re-snowed in during last week's storm. There, he said he confirmed that he could stay in his home despite the yellow tag and sought help starting the process to get his roof fixed. But he didn't get very far.

"I talked to many people and by the time I got out of there my head was spinning so bad," McKenzie said.

He returned home with the web address for San Bernardino County's site for requesting building permits and a suggestion that he try the library for a computer and help using it. The county is waiving up to $5,000 in plan review and permit fees for storm victims who need to repair or rebuild their homes but there are still a lot of steps to undertake.

"I always feel like I'm being shoved aside," McKenzie said.

California requests federal disaster declaration, but not for San Bernardino — yet

Gov. Gavin Newsom requested a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden this week for nine counties. That request included Los Angeles but not San Bernardino. But Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said it was "highly likely" that San Bernardino and other parts of the state still buried in snow will be added to the list. State and local officials first have to do a full assessment of damages, which has been difficult given the continuous parade of storms.

A major disaster declaration could unlock assistance, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Small Business Administration, for businesses, non-profit organizations and residents.

McKenzie said the main purpose of his recent trek to the county's local assistance center was to talk to a FEMA representative about getting help for repairing his home. But FEMA wasn't at the event.

Chad Bowman, a spokesperson for FEMA, explained that the agency can't provide federal assistance to individuals unless, or until, a major disaster declaration is declared for the area. Nevertheless, people can still apply for FEMA assistance, he said, and their information will be kept on file.

"If and when a major disaster dec (sic) is given, we pull that information from when individuals have applied," Bowman said.

Mountain communities could have major insurance gaps

FEMA assistance for individuals is geared toward disaster victims who have uninsured or underinsured needs. Bowman said aid for rebuilding or replacing a home is restricted to primary residences and can only be accessed after your private insurance, if you have it, has been exhausted.

Need help navigating the insurance process?

  • The California Department of Insurance has a hotline where you can talk to an insurance expert, 800-927-4357.

  • The state also has guides to disaster assistance services for immigrants in English and Spanish.

Newsom's request for a major disaster declaration notes that approximately 39% of San Bernardino County's population lack homeowners or personal property insurance, and less than 5% have flood insurance — an issue that could have major implications as all that record-breaking snow begins to melt.

McKenzie, like many residents in the fire-prone San Bernardino Mountains, said he's insured through the California FAIR plan, a fire insurance pool mandated by the state. The plan offers fire coverage to renters and homeowners in areas where people are unable to purchase a standard plan because of the high risk.

A FAIR plan policy generally satisfies a mortgage lender's requirement that a home be insured, but the basic plan only covers damages caused by fire and lightning, smoke or an internal explosion.

Solem, the middle school teacher, said "almost everybody" in San Bernardino Mountain communities has FAIR plan insurance.

The state fire marshal considers the San Bernardino National Forest at "very high risk" for wildfires. In 2003, the Old Fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and forced 80,000 people to evacuate in Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and surrounding communities.

Homeowners and renters can purchase an additional "wrap-around" or "difference in conditions" policy that covers other risks, like storm damage and flooding, but it's unclear how many do. The state insurance department estimates that about half of FAIR Plan policyholders statewide also have a DIC policy.

 Solem does not have weather-related insurance on her Crestline home beyond the FAIR plan. Her home suffered a major gas leak during the late February storm followed by a total collapse of the deck outside her and her husband's bedroom. Now she's concerned about flooding — the home sits at the bottom of a steep slope.

"All the stuff that we have that's going on here isn't covered [by insurance]," Solem said. "We'll have to pay for that ourselves. But there's a lot of people that are not in a position to do that."

The median household income in Crestline is $64,523, compared to $70,287 in San Bernardino County as a whole and $76,367 in Los Angeles County.

Crestline resident Laurie Brunson, who owns a fire protection company with her husband, said she's spoken with several homeowners who let their insurance lapse completely because they own their homes outright and no longer need it to comply with mortgage requirements.

"They can't afford to pay those [insurance] prices," she said.

The median home value in Crestline is $277,900.

The case for low-tech, human help

Brunson's daughter and son-in-law left Crestline just before the February storms because her daughter was in the late stages of pregnancy with her second child, and they were worried about getting stuck. The child was born Feb. 24 — the day after the National Weather Service issued its first-ever blizzard warning for the San Bernardino Mountains.


But the storm took down power lines connecting the young family's home to the grid and they've been muddling their way through the process of getting the problem fixed so the family can move back in.

"You couldn't really get any good information on where to go and who to call," said Brunson, who owns the home where her daughter's family lives. She tried the county's permitting website but couldn't figure out how to specify in the online form that the damage was caused by the recent storms and therefore was eligible for waived permit fees.

"I was starting to get frustrated with that process," Brunson. Then she remembered that the county building department had an office in nearby Twin Peaks and went to see if she could get help in person. She did.

"I had my permit in hand by the time I left the office about 25 minutes later," Brunson said. "So that process was really smooth."

She got the repair work done the same day and a building inspector signed off on it last Thursday. But now the family has been waiting for nearly a week for SoCal Edison to turn the lights back on.

Brunson finally posted a desperate message in a local Facebook group asking for advice, got a tip to call the electricity company's consumer affairs department, and got a prompt promise to get the house connected as soon as possible.

But it could still be another week until the family can move back in and snow is already falling — again.

"We're just like crossing our fingers that, you know, no pipes are going to break or anything like that and have another situation going on. Because it's so cold in there," Brunson said.

McKenzie, the Twin Peaks resident with the damaged roof, did finally get analog help this week at the building department's Twin Peaks office — which is right across the street from his home. He wasn't aware of the office, or that he could get in-person assistance there, until his recent visit to the county's pop-up local assistance center in Crestline.

He said he's awaiting a letter from his insurer through the California FAIR Plan acknowledging that his roof damage isn't covered under his plan. Then he can have a contractor come evaluate the damage, estimate the cost of repairs and send the plan to the county to get a building permit.

McKenzie is hoping FEMA will foot the majority of the bill, if and when a major disaster is declared for the area.

Meanwhile, snow is again piling up on the damaged roof.

"I'm living in a house that could crush me at any moment," McKenzie said. "It's scary, very scary."

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