Hurricane Hilary threatens ‘catastrophic’ flooding in Mexico and California


Hurricane Hilary headed for Mexico’s Baja California on Saturday as the U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” for the peninsula and for the southwestern United States, where it is forecast to make land as a tropical storm on Sunday.

Officials as far north as Los Angeles scrambled to get the homeless off the streets, set up shelters and prepare for evacuations.

Hilary is expected to plow into the Mexican peninsula on Saturday night and then surge northward and enter the history books as the first tropical storm to hit southern California in 84 years.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for a wide swath of southern California, from the Pacific Coast to interior mountains and deserts. Officials talked of evacuation plans for California’s Catalina Island.

Restaurant employees put protective wood planks on the window of a restaurant near the beach before the arrival of a hurricane.
Restaurant employees in Los Cabos, on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, put protective wood planks on the exterior of a restaurant near the beach on Friday before the expected arrival of the storm. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

“I don’t think any of us — I know me particularly — never thought I’d be standing here talking about a hurricane or a tropical storm,” said Janice Hahn, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

After rapidly gaining power early Friday, Hilary slowed a little later in the day but remained a major Category 4 hurricane early Saturday, with maximum sustained winds of 215 km/h, down from 230 km/h.

Expected to continue northward

Early Saturday, the storm was centred about 390 kilometres west-southwest of the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. It was moving north-northwest at 20 km/h and was expected to turn more toward the north and pick up speed.

The latest forecast track pointed to Hilary making landfall along a sparsely populated area of the Baja peninsula about 330 kilometres south of the port city of Ensenada.

It is then expected to continue northward, raising fears that its heavy rains could cause dangerous flooding in the border city of Tijuana, where many homes in the city of 1.9 million cling precariously to steep hillsides.

Workers lay down a large sheet of plastic on a hill as they prepare for heavy rain and possible landslides.
Workers in San Clemente, Calif., lay down a large sheet of plastic on a slide-ridden hill on Friday, in anticipation of heavy rain expected with the arrival of storm Hilary. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramirez said the city was setting up four shelters in high-risk zones and warning people in risky zones.

“We are a vulnerable city, being on one of the most visited borders in the world and because of our landscape,” she said.

Concern was rising in the U.S., too.

Getting homeless people into shelters

The National Park Service closed Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve to keep people from becoming stranded amid flooding. Cities across the region, including in Arizona, were offering sandbags to safeguard properties against floodwaters.

Major League Baseball rescheduled three Sunday games in southern California, moving them to Saturday as part of split-doubleheaders.

Deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department took to the road to urge homeless people living in riverbeds to seek shelter. Authorities in the city were arranging food, cots and shelters for people who needed them.

SpaceX delayed the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket from a base on California’s central coast until at least Monday. The company said conditions in the Pacific could make it difficult for a ship to recover the rocket booster.

Biden urges everyone to take precautions

U.S. President Joe Biden said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had pre-positioned staff and supplies in the region.

“I urge everyone, everyone in the path of this storm, to take precautions and listen to the guidance of state and local officials,” Biden told reporters Friday at Camp David, where he is meeting with the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

Officials in southern California were reinforcing sand berms, built to protect low-lying coastal communities against winter surf, like in Huntington Beach, which dubs itself “Surf City USA.”

In nearby Newport Beach, Tanner Atkinson waited in a line of vehicles for free sandbags at a city distribution point.

“I mean, a lot of people here are excited because the waves are gonna get pretty heavy,” Atkinson said. “But I mean, it’s gonna be some rain, so usually there’s some flooding and the landslides and things like that.”

Some schools in Cabo San Lucas were being prepared as temporary shelters, and in La Paz, the picturesque capital of Baja California Sur state on the Sea of Cortez, police patrolled closed beaches to keep swimmers out of the whipped-up surf. Schools were shut down in five municipalities.

It was increasingly likely that Hilary would reach California on Sunday while still at tropical storm strength, though widespread rain was expected to begin as early as Saturday, the National Weather Service’s San Diego office said.

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