By RHEA-FRANCES TETLEY – Staff Writer
(Photos by Rhea-Frances Tetley)
More than 100 concerned and affected community members attended a combined meeting of the mountain’s two Municipal Advisory Councils (MACs) on May 3 in the performing arts center at Rim High.
Those community members heard from 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and representatives of a number of government agencies. Supervisor Rowe requested all agencies that gave reports to stay until the end to answer all questions and concerns the people brought up.
Supervisor Rowe began by telling her constituents that “government is here to help you when we can. My job is to be here when you need us, to be in the background when you don’t.” She added that “mountain folks are resilient. They help their neighbors.”
The supervisor went on to say they will dig into areas where the county fell short – “lessons learned.” Rowe said they recognize there should have been more assets on the mountain. “I pledge to not repeat the mistakes” that were made.
Each department – Sheriff, County Fire, Public Works, Land Use Services, Caltrans and CHP – explained in detail how their department or agency prepared and then responded to the blizzard that hit the mountain.
“I don’t want any of you to be disappointed in the sheriff’s response,” Sheriff Shannon Dicus said. During the course of the storms, he noted, many deputies spent nights at the Twin Peaks station. At the incident command center, decisions were made in unison by the sheriff’s department, County Fire and Caltrans.
“This was the most dynamic incident I’ve ever been involved in,” County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said. “I want to thank the community for your patience. We were doing our best to meet your needs in an overwhelming situation. Can we do better? Absolutely. Everyone worked hard together.” He added that’s something you don’t see in other counties.
Brendon Biggs of County Public Works explained how they plowed over 500 miles of roadways, some not normally county plowed roads. But, since the Crest Forest communities received 120 inches of snow in a short time period, plows were ineffective and front-end loaders and trucks were needed to move the snow. They were short of seasonal snow workers and the needed equipment, such as huge snow blower attachments for their plowing equipment.
The county had to hire contractors from off the mountain with the proper equipment to remove the snow and had to supply them with the correct size tire chains, which had to be purchased from the East Coast area and shipped out to California, which resulted in another delay on starting to clear the roadways, as the snow kept falling. They had to focus first on emergency relief areas that required clearance, including the helipad at the hospital, the high school parking lot and others for a Red Cross evacuation center and other relief centers, and vital access routes for electrical and gas workers, as trees had fallen and were blocking their ability to restore services.
Those workers from down the hill were unfamiliar with the roads and using limited GPS systems to find the routes with the six to seven feet of snow that was covering everything, and some people had left their cars blocking roadways and got hit by the large equipment, slowing down operations as well.
Resident complaints of snowplows driving down an unplowed road and not clearing on their way were not truly addressed other than every plow has a designated area to plow. Biggs explained the rules for plowing and the definition of an area plowed as “passable” – one lane 12 feet wide, with less than eight inches of snow left on the ground that can be driven by a 4×4 with chains. It was pointed out to him that even emergency vehicles could not use many of those roads declared as passable as the lane plowed was not wide enough for fire trucks and ambulances and some vehicles did not have eight inches of road clearance. It was especially bad when the berms are seven feet high or higher when there was no place to pass if another vehicle was coming from the opposite direction.
Chad Nottingham from Land Use Services said, so far, Building and Safety has inspected over 1,000 buildings and properties for serious damage and has been forced to yellow and red tag many of them. The county is dedicated to streamlining the process to enable the property owners to get back to normal, including not charging some demolition and rebuilding permit fees.
Barbara Nitis, the public information officer for the disaster recovery office set up at the Twin Peaks Community Center, spoke briefly on the agencies that have representatives there. She said to apply soon for help as the last day the workers will be there may be May 20; they may close sooner if no one comes by and needs assistance. She warned not to wait to be denied by your insurance carrier before filing a claim for your losses as that is valuable time lost in getting started on your FEMA or Small Business (SBA) loan application. The disaster assistance office is open Sunday through Friday (closed Saturdays) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 675 Grandview in Twin Peaks in the Community Center building. Or call FEMA at (800) 621-3362 from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Many people complimented Rim Schools Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Fricker for her assistance during this disaster and opening her school buildings for agencies to use as evacuation centers and food distribution centers. Without the support of the schools and the ability to reach many families through their phone trees, some families may be in even worse shape than they were during the blizzard. Some families needed help when their buildings were impacted by trees and information through Facebook and neighbors helped them.
Many commented that it was neighbor helping neighbor in response to needs and food, when the county could not be reached. This communication breakdown was acknowledged by Supervisor Rowe.
Resident after resident who asked questions of the agencies complimented grassroots citizen groups that started up to fill in needs, bring food, shovel out homes, driveways and cars and worked together to help where no services were available or responding.
Questions were asked about the exploding gas meters that burned down homes and the need to learn how this issue is addressed in places like Lake Tahoe, where their gas meters don’t explode. The information needs to be clear on what to do.
The guardrails on Highway 18 are severely damaged from the snowplows and the center divider made some turn arounds impossible, so more turn-around spots should be made to enable those arriving to change their minds and not try to access the mountain during snowing conditions.
After all the questions had been answered by the agencies and suggestions accepted, Supervisor Rowe reminded people to visit the Twin Peaks disaster recovery center and keep informed at future MAC meetings, since they report to her on their meetings and needs. The Lake Arrowhead MAC will meet at the county building in Twin Peaks at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 1. The Crest Forest MAC will meet Tuesday, June 6 at the San Moritz Lodge at 6:30 p.m. The public is invited.