San Diego Residents Describe Escape from Flood

San Diego Residents Describe Escape from Flood

They fled to rooftops. Deserted cars in the middle of raging waters. Grabbed kayaks to traverse flooded streets. Searched for neighbors and cried out to strangers.

The rare torrent of rain that slammed the San Diego area on Monday forced numerous residents to navigate life-threatening scenes that they had trouble believing even as they recounted them.

The authorities would later call it a miracle that no one died and very few people were injured in a suddenly calamitous storm that prompted state and local leaders to declare a state of emergency.

“What happened yesterday was extraordinary,” said Todd Gloria, the mayor of San Diego.

On Tuesday, officials assessed the devastation in a region where very few residents have flood insurance. The record pace of the rainfall — a deluge of nearly three inches in three hours — had quickly overwhelmed drainage systems. According to the National Weather Service, it was the fourth greatest total for any day in recorded San Diego history, going back to 1850.

Many residents face losses that feel more impossible than their harrowing escapes. Some wondered why government officials had not done more to warn residents or call on them to evacuate before they were surrounded by floodwaters. Others were still in disbelief that their belongings were destroyed in an instant.

“Electronics, clothes, pictures, memories, everything’s gone. I lost everything in that flood,” Luis Reyes said of the apartment that he shares with his family. “All my memories are gone.’”

Mr. Reyes, 18, had been at their home in National City, just south of San Diego, when the water rushed in and quickly rose to his waist. His parents and sister had already left for the day. He managed to snatch a shoebox of greeting cards and his two Chihuahuas, before climbing out his bedroom window. Outside, he saw floating vehicles crashing into one another.

“It just felt like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie,” said Mr. Reyes, who works as a Starbucks barista.

Residents a few miles away in the Southcrest neighborhood of San Diego were mucking out yards filled with debris, overwhelmed by the task that lay ahead inside their homes where mud coated the floors. Broken fences sat in disarray on the streets. Soiled furniture dotted the sidewalks.

Duncan MacLuan, 34, and his roommate had climbed to their roof during the storm and waited hours for the water to subside. They watched others do the same. Some residents hopped on Jet Skis or longboards to try to help rescue stranded people and pets.

“We had dogs and cats on the roof right next to us,” Mr. MacLuan said. “It was insane. I have never seen anything like that.”

A neighbor’s chickens in a coop ended up drowning, he added.

Mr. MacLuan grew up in North Carolina and said he was used to hurricanes. But this experience rattled him. He had received an alert on his phone about a possible flash flood, but said it arrived too late.

“The rain was already eight inches deep by the time the warning came,” Mr. MacLuan said.

The National Weather Service issued two flash flood warnings for different parts of the region: one at 8:21 a.m. for the northern part of the county, and one at 9:34 for other areas, including the city of San Diego. Each was followed by emergency cellphone alerts to some residents.

“The magnitude and the intensity was under-predicted,” said Alex Tardy, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. Mr. Tardy said that the agency had correctly predicted the total amount of rain days in advance, but that the intensity had been double what was expected in a region where forecasting can be difficult.

“A lot of places in the country don’t have a giant ocean next door, and they don’t have hills and different types of terrain,” Mr. Tardy said. “So there’s complications there. It’s not really an excuse, but there’s always those variables.”

As was the case elsewhere in California during last year’s atmospheric rivers, several of the neighborhoods that were struck on Monday were among the most impoverished in San Diego. Residents whose homes were flooded said they had been concerned for years that nearby channels had not been properly maintained and left them vulnerable.

“These communities of concern, these underinvested communities have clearly and demonstrably been the hardest hit throughout the region,” said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of Groundwork San Diego-Chollas Creek, which works with residents and nonprofits along the Chollas Creek Watershed that was overwhelmed on Monday. “These are redlined communities with disproportionate pollution, unemployment, chronic health conditions, and all of these are going to be exacerbated by coming climate challenges. It is heartbreaking.”

Representative Juan Vargas, a Democrat whose district encompasses southwestern San Diego County, starting along the Mexican border, said on Tuesday that his office was fielding calls from distraught homeowners wondering how they would pay for the damages. A mere 8,128 households out of 1.15 million in San Diego County have flood insurance.

“A lot of people are not insured and a lot of people are going to have lots of damage,” Mr. Vargas said, adding that his office is working with the federal government to see what help is available.

“We’re trying to figure that out right now with FEMA to see if there’s anything we can do for them,” he said. “And the damage is extensive.”

Driving around his district during the storm, Mr. Vargas noticed clogged drainage canals, which he said meant that lawsuits against local governments were likely.

“Certainly the city for whatever reason wasn’t able to maintain them,” Mr. Vargas said. “Cities have tight budgets, and I feel for them.”

Officials with the city of San Diego estimated that it had suffered $6 million to $7 million in damage to its infrastructure. Mayor Gloria said that no drainage system would have been able to handle the sudden deluge that hit San Diego on Monday, but he acknowledged that the city needed to build more storm defense in the future. He said residents might have to pay more for upgrades and maintenance as climate change causes more intense storms.

“What rain patterns were before is not what they are today, and they’re not what they are moving forward,” said Kris McFadden, the deputy chief operating officer for the city. “That’s something we need to plan for.”

On Tuesday morning, the Reyes family, who had spent the night at a shelter, returned to the home they had lived in for a decade to take stock of what they could salvage. They found only a swampy mess.

Dirt coated the soggy carpet. Water puddled across the linoleum floor. The couches they had recently bought were entirely soaked. Their belongings had been tossed about, littered across the rooms. A musty smell drifted throughout.

Dulce Reyes, 24, had just gotten a job at Sephora after two months of being unemployed and wondered how she would be able to make it to work. The family’s cars had been underwater. They were relying on rides from friends.

Any hope they had mustered overnight had dissipated at the sight of what would be an overwhelming cleanup task.

“Everything is just a mess,” she said. “It’s just like restarting all over.”

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