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‘Snowmaggedon' Caused $380M In Losses To San Bernardino Mountain Communities. Now They're Banking On A Summer Recovery

A wooden deck piled with a snow bank on the left and three men working at the rear. Ladders and and a pile of broken planks are laid out on the deck.
Workers repair a deck at Pine Rose Cabins in Twin Peaks on May 3, 2023. The family-owned business estimates losses totaling more than $500,000 from the winter storm disaster in the San Bernardino mountains.
(Jill Replogle
/
LAist)
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Residents in the San Bernardino mountains are rebuilding after the devastating winter storms that dumped more than 12 feet of snow in some areas. Losses to public and private property total close to $380 million, according to the most recent estimate.

Sixty-nine commercial buildings were damaged by the storms; seven of them were destroyed, according to a San Bernardino County spokesperson.

Most of the heavy snow that collapsed local business roofs and trapped residents in their homes earlier this year is now gone.

Despite a snowstorm that hit the region in early May, yellow daffodils are sprouting up in front yards in Lake Arrowhead and Crestline, and communities are onto their next challenge: getting their lives and livelihoods back on track.

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"The recovery we need is we need people to start coming back," said Tricia DuFour, who owns Pine Rose Cabins in Twin Peaks. Tourism to the area, she said, has been dismal all spring.

Three of the family-owned resort's 20 cabins are still closed for repairs following storm damage and, during a visit earlier this month, they were still working frantically to make repairs ahead of their first wedding of the season.

DuFour wondered aloud if her business might be eligible for federal help recovering the close to $15,000 in revenue that was lost when the area's first-ever blizzard hit on a weekend, usually a busy time for snow-seeking vacationers. (In all, she estimates the business has lost $100,000 in revenue since the storms hit in late February and early March.) She also wondered whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) might help her pay the $50,000 deductible she estimates she'll owe for storm damage repairs before her insurance kicks in.

The recovery we need is we need people to start coming back.
— Tricia DuFour, owner, Pine Rose Cabins in Twin Peaks

But she’s been so busy coordinating repairs on the 10-acre property that she hasn't had time to dig into the paperwork required to apply for disaster relief. "You get your business up and running first and then you figure out how you're going to pay for it," DuFour said.

The deadline for residents to apply for FEMA disaster assistance is June 5. Anyone who’s experienced physical or financial damage to a home or business from the blizzard, or lost personal property, may be eligible.

Lessons learned and where to get help

Winter Storm Recovery
    • The Crestline Chamber of Commerce has a detailed list of local, county and federal assistance available for disaster victims.
    • Learn more about, and apply for, assistance available through FEMA and the SBA.
    • Check the latest information on San Bernardino County’s storm response website
    • Read the report about lessons learned from the winter storm response produced by a committee of local leaders

Disaster recovery centers are open

FEMA, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and a variety of state agencies have set up disaster recovery centers in San Bernardino mountain communities to help residents and businesses wade through the paperwork.

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On a recent weekday at the one at the Twin Peaks Community Center, half a dozen people sat in rows of chairs waiting for their turn to meet with a representative.

Lake Arrowhead resident Michael Irion was looking for help paying for repairs to his home from flooding during the winter storms. "In the middle of the night I got my carpet shampooer out and was sucking up eight gallons of water off the floor," Irion said.

Signs announcing FEMA and SBA disaster assistance hang along a wall outside a parking lot with the roof of a building showing in the background.
The FEMA recovery center in Twin Peaks is scheduled to be open through May 19.
(Jill Replogle
/
LAist)

He said his insurance company was "dragging their heels" and he was heartened to learn about backup resources, including the SBA, which offers low-interest loans to replace or repair damage, and the California Department of Insurance, which offered to help him "fight the insurance company if it comes down to that," Irion said.

Juan Alvarado was also there with his 3-year-old daughter — who kept pulling him toward the door — trying to finish up the paperwork required for an SBA loan to repair the building that housed his flooring company. The heavy winter snow broke two of the main beams on the building's roof.

"We had a little bit of savings. And then, just, the insurance didn't help us at all," he said.

Alvarado said he'd been working out of his house since the storms. He said it had taken four to five days to gather all the paperwork required for an SBA loan. "It's not easy," he said. "We just have to keep working."

FEMA manager Anthony Nieves said the operation has assisted 50 to 60 people every day since it opened on April 27.

For some, help is difficult to navigate

Just down the street from the Twin Peaks disaster assistance center, 68-year-old Thomas McKenzie was waiting — two months after heavy snow cracked his roof — for a civil engineer to assess the damage so he could start the repair process.

McKenzie moved back into his home in late March after spending 15 days in a Red Cross shelter. His nearly 100-year-old home is still yellow-tagged, meaning parts of it are potentially unsafe. The white lattice that used to shield his side porch from the adjacent road has collapsed onto the gate below and a green-painted wooden beam lays cracked across the top of it.

Looking up at a collapsed railing on the deck of a house. A green wood beam is cracked and the roof is bowed.
Part of the roof of Thomas McKenzie's home in Twin Peaks cracked during the winter storms.
(Jill Replogle
/
LAist)

In all, 1,010 residential properties in the San Bernardino mountains suffered storm damage; 66 of them were destroyed, according to a county spokesperson.

McKenzie suffered a stroke several years ago and struggles with brain fog and balance. He has no computer and says he doesn't know how to use a smartphone. He also recently found out that his home is only insured for fire damage, through the California FAIR Plan, not for other types of damage, like that caused by a blizzard.

So navigating the winter storm and the recovery — physically and financially — has been "a nightmare," as he puts it. He pointed to a 1-inch thick pile of paperwork on his coffee table and sighed.

During the storms, McKenzie's falling roof partially collapsed his deck. Now he can't use the easiest entrance in and out of his home. Instead, he has to go up and down a narrow, spiral staircase to leave the house for groceries and cigarettes, and to make his twice-a-week trips to the post office to pick up mail.

"This is called the staircase to hell," he said, breathing hard and holding tightly to the railing as he wound downstairs to show me the first floor of his home, which he normally doesn't use because of the stairs.

A man in a grey sweatshirt with grey hair and a white beard holds onto the inside of a gate. His head pokes up from underneath the fallen siding of his deck.
Thom McKenzie has to duck under the collapsed siding of his deck to open his front gate.
(Jill Replogle
/
LAist)

McKenzie went — twice — in March to a disaster assistance center in nearby Valley of Enchantment. And he recently went to the new disaster recovery center down the street, where he found out he had been given the wrong case number to apply for FEMA help. "When you're as confused as I am, I don't need bad information," McKenzie said.

He now has a new case number and he's begun the county permitting process to get his roof fixed. But he says he's beyond frustrated. "Before I get done with all this city, state, local government sh**, I'll probably be dead," McKenzie said.

A few days later, McKenzie’s repair outlook had improved. He told us by phone that a FEMA representative and a civil engineer had come to assess the damage to his house. The engineer said he'd get to work on getting the necessary permits from the county; the FEMA representative said someone would be back to follow up about federal assistance.

Happy to have their community back

At the county-owned San Moritz Lodge, a popular wedding venue on the shore of Lake Gregory, several dozen people talk, laugh and eat pasta with meatballs and salad. These free, twice-weekly community meals have been taking place for 16 years.

"It's just so good to see people," said Penny Shubnell, who organizes the meal program. "It's so good to hug people. It's so good to make eye contact with people. …I mean we were locked in with the pandemic and then we were locked in with this snowmageddon, too, and so it's nice to be out."

It's so good to hug people. It's so good to make eye contact with people … I mean we were locked in with the pandemic and then we were locked in with this snowmageddon, too, and so it's nice to be out.
— Penny Shubnell, meal program organizer

The meals were originally only for seniors, but after the winter storms, Shubnell got additional funding through the county’s Department of Aging to extend the invitation to all ages. She said it's a way to promote socializing among different generations and to thank the local first responders — she said firefighters often come by for lunch — for helping dig residents' homes and vehicles out of the snow.

The mood was light in the high-ceilinged dining hall despite the losses many suffered during the recent storms — roofs, cars, even friends. Shubnell said she had talked to her friend Elinor "Dolly" Avenatti on the phone a few days before the 93-year-old Crestline resident was found dead in her home on March 6.

Avenatti's power had been out for at least six days, Shubnell said, when she was found by a neighbor who went to check on her. During their last conversation, Avenatti told Shubnell she was bundled up in bed trying to stay warm and couldn't wait to be able to get outside and walk again. "She had plans for the future as soon as the snow melted," Shubnell said.

In the immediate aftermath of the storms, the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner Department reported 13 deaths in mountain communities but only attributed one of them — a pedestrian hit by a car — directly to the weather.

What went wrong?

Some mountain residents are still angry about the government's initial handling of the winter disaster. Recently, a committee of local leaders assembled by San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe released a report detailing "unfiltered and constructive feedback on the government’s response" to the storm.

Critiques included:

  • The lack of consistent plowing of roads that let snow accumulate to the point where local equipment couldn't handle the load. 
  • Muddled messaging and coordination between Caltrans and the county about what travel was allowed up and down the mountain in the wake of the blizzard, when the roads were still closed to the general public. "[Residents] would sit at the base of the mountain for hours with no clear information on when they could return home," the report reads. 
  • The lack of clear guidance for residents on how to handle gas meters buried underneath the snow. Gas meters exploded in several areas, causing evacuations and several fires.
  • No opportunities for distance learning for students who were out of school for several weeks. 

The report includes recommendations for preparing for the next extreme storm, which climate scientists say could become more frequent and intense in this area by the middle of this century.

Rowe has also directed the county CEO to review the government's response to the storms and report back to the board of supervisors. In response to an interview request from LAist, Rowe's deputy chief of staff said she was unavailable.

One bright spot that has gotten near consistent praise: the community itself. Neighbors helped dig out neighbors and local groups organized free food distributions that are still ongoing.

DeFour from Pine Rose Cabins said local painters and contractors had been working overtime and giving up their weekends to help get her family business ready for wedding season.

Tiffany Millburn, office manager at the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, said that community rebuilding spirit is widespread. "Everybody just jumped in and helped the town," she said. "That was the most beautiful thing about this storm."

Have a question about Orange County?
Jill Replogle wants to know what you wished you knew more about in OC and what’s important to you that’s not getting enough attention.

Corrected May 18, 2023 at 11:09 AM PDT
A previous version of this story had errors in our description of springtime in the mountains.
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