Cathedral City residents are criticizing the city for its emergency response to Tropical Storm Hilary, which devastated one neighborhood by flooding it with water and several feet of mud.
The storm's impacts on Horizon Road were among the worst of all residential areas in the Coachella Valley. Its northeast corner is located in a high-risk flood zone, but several feet of mud unexpectedly filled the street in addition to rainwater. The result was disaster: residents trapped in their homes with first responders unable to reach them through the muck, property damage as rainwater mixed with mud burst through garage doors and invaded homes, and shock that one day of heavy rainfall in the desert could result in such chaos.
Three weeks after the flooding, at least 100 people gathered for a city council meeting that included updates about Hilary recovery. The council authorized using $1,062,000 from the general fund for storm-related cleanup, repairs and protective measures.
Nearly two hours of the Sept. 13 meeting was filled with public comments. Residents voiced frustration over issues including how first responders were unable to help them the night of the storm and the lack of adequate flood control in the area. Most of them said the city was unprepared and has provided inadequate aid.
The night of the storm
Analisa Cayabyab, who operates a home care facility on Horizon Road, said she cries for the community every time she visits the street now. A rescue team used earthmovers to relocate 14 seniors trapped in her facility a day after the storm.
“My residents (were) stuck in the mud for 13 hours with no help. We called 911, no (response). I called community care licensing from Riverside, no (response),” Cayabyab said. “I called fire department, no (response). I called Cathedral City, no (response). Where is the help?”
Tropical Storm Hilary knocked out service for 911 phone lines in Cathedral City, Indio and Palm Springs. The city instructed residents to call an alternative number for police or fire emergencies, though it is possible many residents did not see this information amid their panic.
Cathedral City Fire Chief Michael Contreras said 911 calls were then transferred to the police department's business line. There were 1,395 calls and eight dispatchers, he said.
But several residents reported not receiving help from the fire department the night of the storm. Contreras said rescue teams had to prioritize where they were going throughout the weather event based on risk to life.
“The representatives of Cathedral City have failed us. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you really did fail us,” Cayabyab said. “When it came time to smile for photo-ops, the national news, people were there. But when it was time for actual support being given, your backs were turned.”
Contreras said the fire department used "the master mutual aid system" in California, which allows the city to receive more resources from the field, local governments, operational area, region and finally the state as needed. Some agencies that assisted include Army National Guard rescue units, the Palm Springs swift water rescue team and Cal Fire, according to Contreras. He said this was key to there being no loss of life and noted there were 66 total rescues.
City Manager Charlie McClendon previously told The Desert Sun the mud made it difficult to reach residents, particularly at the far north end where it was deepest. Many community members instead had to turn to each other for help.
"Treading through this neighborhood in this mud at night with no light — we did have one of our firefighters get (shocked by electricity)," Contreras said. "We had multiple gas main leaks ... so there were multiple threats to the people that were out there."
He said the department set up resources in the neighborhood and were trying to go house to house to assess people's needs. But helping the home care facility residents was a challenge since some were non-ambulatory and would need to be carried out through deep mud, he added. The rescue teams had made multiple attempts before they found a plan that worked. They considered using a Cal Fire bulldozer, but the operator worried it would fall to the bottom of a sinkhole.
Michael Sereno, whose home is next to the home care facility, said he had to get his partner May Xu and her two employees out of the house himself the morning after the storm. He said there was a broken gas line on their property leaking for several hours.
"That is why I went in to rescue my wife and her workers, because police and fire were not going there," he said.
After the flood
Cathedral City focused most of its efforts on cleaning and reopening the street following the storm. It did not clean inside homes but did clean driveways, and volunteers and residents were able to move mud from inside homes to the public street for the city to remove.
The city also partnered with Riverside County to open a local assistance center at the Cathedral City Library Community Room from Sept. 6 through 8. But Dawn Figueroa said it was a little too late for most of the aid it offered.
“They didn’t have anything tangible to help with. It's all about filling out more forms and waiting for answers. A woman I called at the Red Cross even said the city doing this now is too little, too late. I just don’t understand,” Figueroa said. “Even on a human level, forget that it's a part of your job to protect the patrons living in your city lines, how do you do so little?”
Cathedral City submitted $24.5 million in public property damage and $10.4 million in private property damage to Riverside County in its initial damage assessment, McClendon said. He added that a federal emergency had not been declared as of last week, which will be critical for receiving aid.
Figueroa said residents have been asked to deplete their life savings, find a place to live, figure out transportation and worry about their health while working in the toxic mud. Some other concerns residents voiced included the city turning away volunteers (McClendon has said this was for safety), the city towing cars that were moved during the flood, and lack of communication and resources provided to residents.
“How did this even happen? If we were in a flood zone, shouldn’t retention walls have been built to protect us in our homes?” Figueroa said. “The trauma from living through this mentally is worse than losing everything.”
The city and its police department said they're waiving their release fees for cars towed from Horizon Road during the storm. The private companies that did the towing are not waiving their charges, but residents can try to negotiate with them, said police Sgt. Jon Enos.
McClendon said the city and county Supervisor V. Manuel Perez's office are working to organize a meeting with the Riverside County Flood Control district and Coachella Valley Water District.
The CVWD is working on three projects that would help defend against flooding on Horizon Road in various stages of development — the North Cathedral City Regional Flood Control Project, Thousand Palms Flood Control Project and North Indio Regional Flood Control Project.
"Its not something that'll happen overnight," he said. "But we are going to be working on what the plan is and how to move that forward."
Ani Gasparyan covers the western Coachella Valley cities of Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: In Hilary’s wake, many residents frustrated at Cathedral City response