Tropical Storm Hilary made its historic arrival in California on Sunday with forecasters warning of possibly catastrophic flooding after the storm pummeled Mexico’s Baja California peninsula with heavy rains.
One person died in Mexico amid reports of flash flooding in the peninsula, where some roads were swept away and images on social media showed raging torrents gushing down city streets that have been turned into rivers.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for much of Southern California, with flash flood warnings in effect throughout a region that is more accustomed to drought.
Hundreds of flights in San Diego, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were canceled, and professional sporting matches rescheduled. The Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District canceled classes for Monday.
San Diego County, just north of the Mexican border, braced for its first-ever recorded tropical storm. Throughout Southern California, some desert and mountain areas could receive a year’s worth of rain in one day. Some areas also could experience tornadoes.
Floodwaters raced through the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, which normally contains barely a trickle. In Ocotillo, a desert town about 90 miles (145 km) east of San Diego, rock slides brought boulders down on Interstate 8, causing traffic delays on the highway to Arizona.
Hilary would be the first recorded tropical strength storm ever to hit San Diego County, and such a storm is exceedingly rare for Southern California. Nora hit a remote part of Imperial County to the east in 1997, and in 1939, before storms were named, another came ashore in Long Beach to the north, in Los Angeles County.
Mountain and desert areas could get 5 to 10 inches of (12 to 25 cm) rain, forecasters said.
“In some places in the desert, that’s a year’s worth,” Alex Tardy, a senior meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in San Diego, told a news briefing. “The normal rainfall in Southern California and San Diego is nothing in August. So, a very unusual event unfolding here.”
In Palm Springs, a desert getaway in Riverside County about 100 miles (160 km) east of Los Angeles, the streets were flooded. The city of 45,000 people typically gets around 4.6 inches of rain in an entire year and could receive 6-10 inches from this one storm.
California’s Death Valley area, which receives only about 2.2 inches of rain per year, could receive 3-4 inches from this event.
Amid all the storm preparation, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rocked the Ventura County city of Ojai, about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Los Angles. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Storm Hilary, which made landfall earlier in the day in the northern part of the Baja California peninsula, has been weakening over the last 48 hours. But it is still set to be the wettest storm ever to hit the U.S. Southwest, according to Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS).
Hilary was carrying top sustained winds of 60 mph (96 kph) and its center was forecast to barrel over the northern portion of the peninsula and then move across Southern California on Sunday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Storm surges - when the ocean is pushed inland - could produce coastal flooding in parts of Baja California and the storm was carrying heavy rain that could cause catastrophic flooding in some areas, the NHC added. Dangerous surf pounded the beaches in Southern California.
“The center is currently just north of the Mexico border,” Lisa Phillips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told a Los Angeles briefing at 4:30 p.m. PDT (2330 GMT).
As of 2 p.m. PDT (2100 GMT), Hilary was about 115 miles (185 km) south-southeast of San Diego, California, the forecaster said. It was moving north-northwest at 23 mph (37 kph).
In Mexico, nearly 1,900 people have been evacuated to shelters in the Baja California peninsula, according to the country’s army.
Around the coastal town of Mulege, on the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula, one person died after his family was swept away while crossing a stream on Saturday. Phone lines and electricity were cut in several of the surrounding villages after lamp posts fell, the Mexican army added.
Mexico’s Navy also evacuated about 850 people from five islands in the path of Hilary, which was previously designated a Category 4 hurricane before it weakened.