Storm That Killed at Least One in Mexico Drenches Southern California (2024)



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Tropical Storm Hilary brings widespread flooding and small landslides, as authorities fear more significant damage could be coming.

Storm That Killed at Least One in Mexico Drenches Southern California (1)

By Thomas Fuller

Torrents of rain, wildfires and an earthquake. California had it all on Sunday. A state preoccupied with The Big One faced calamities both big and small.

A rare tropical storm left at least one person dead as it blasted through Mexico’s Baja California peninsula on Sunday and crossed into heavily populated Southern California, threatening what meteorologists warned could be catastrophic flooding in desert communities not accustomed to sudden, drenching rains.

Near the Oregon border, firefighters battled a wildfire that churned through 2,000 acres in a single day. And then on Sunday afternoon the ground shook, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake centered in Ojai, Calif., that did not cause major damage but rattled a state fatigued by disaster.

By late Sunday afternoon, Tropical Storm Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit California in 26 years, had already dumped three to four inches of rainfall in San Diego and surrounding areas, turning some roads into rivers, toppling trees and power lines, and causing the collapse of an apartment building’s roof in Los Angeles.

In a measure of the storm’s feared effects, the U.S. Navy ordered ships and submarines to leave naval bases in San Diego, Coronado and Point Loma.

Downgraded to a tropical storm from a Category 1 hurricane earlier on Sunday, Hilary could have been far more punishing — it was classified as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane (defined by winds of at least 130 miles per hour) on Friday before weakening as it traveled northward.

Meteorologists said the main threat from Hilary was the prodigious rainfall. Some locations in Nevada and the arid portions of California were forecast to receive one or two years’ worth of rain in one day, according to calculations by the National Weather Service. In Death Valley, normally one of the driest places in North America, flooding closed the main highway on Sunday.

California is inured to the firestorms and mudslides that have been especially devastating in recent years. But tropical storms do not often figure on the list of the state’s disasters. Meteorologists have said the last tropical storm to make landfall in Southern California was at the outset of World War II, in September 1939. That storm, which tore through Los Angeles County, destroyed coastal homes, sank boats and flooded mountain resorts, killing nearly 100 people.



The rain brought by Hilary was a sharp departure from weather patterns in California, where most precipitation falls in winter and where summers often bring extreme desiccation.

Even as emergency officials focused on Southern California, a wildfire that has burned through more than 8,000 acres spurred evacuation orders near the Oregon border, one of more than a dozen active wildfires in the state. The earthquake near Ojai, which struck Sunday afternoon, was powerful enough that residents of Los Angeles, 60 miles southeast, could feel their homes sway for several seconds. But it was a far cry from the dreaded megaquake that is long overdue in California.

The state’s main threat on Sunday was from the storm. Meteorologists feared some of the most arid areas were extremely susceptible to dangerous flash flooding because the ground was hardened and unable to absorb the vast amounts of moisture that the storm was bringing.

“I’ve experienced zero tropical storms,” said Lori Gamble, a Palm Springs resident as the storm approached. “We don’t even know what a tropical storm is.” Later on Sunday, the city manager of Palm Springs, Calif., Scott Stiles, declared a state of emergency, as streets swelled with floodwater.

Firefighters in Southern California accustomed to battling wildfires at this time of year were helping distribute sandbags. The Weather Service even warned of possible tornadoes in some inland areas. Tornadoes are rare in California, where only about 11 occur each year, according to Weather Service data.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, canceled classes and school activities on Monday.

In Mexico, one Indigenous community was essentially cut off by the storm, and flooding and mudslides closed a section of highway between the towns of Santa Rosalía and Mulegé in Baja California Sur state.

One person died after a family’s vehicle was swept away on Saturday night, and Santa Rosalía suffered “very severe” damage, its mayor said on Sunday.

More than a third of flights in and out of San Diego International Airport — and 40 percent of flights leaving Palm Springs International — were canceled.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who traveled through Riverside and San Bernardino Counties on Sunday afternoon, declared a state of emergency in 11 California counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange. Some beaches, along with 10 state parks, were ordered closed. The governor said 7,500 emergency responders had been mobilized throughout the state.

In total, more than five million people in Southern California and southwestern Nevada were at high risk of excessive rainfall, with widespread flash floods expected through the early hours of Monday, according to the Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“High risk days are a big deal” that are rarely issued but account for nearly 40 percent of flood-related fatalities and more than 80 percent of flood-related damage, according to the Weather Service.



Other tropical storms have brought heavy rain and tropical storm-force winds to the Southwestern United States over the years, but only two have made landfall in California. Along with the 1939 storm, the other recorded tropical storm to make landfall in the state occurred on Oct. 2, 1858, when a hurricane shook San Diego, damaging homes, uprooting trees and causing inland flooding. The Daily Alta California described it as “one of the most terrific and violent hurricanes ever noted.”

Christopher Landsea, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center, noted that there were no reported injuries or fatalities in the 1858 storm.

“Back then, San Diego was just a tiny little town,” he said. “San Diego is so different now that if that same hurricane were to hit today, then the damage could be catastrophic.”

As Hilary brought flooding to the West Coast, meteorologists also had their focus on two Atlantic storms. Tropical Storm Emily, which formed on Sunday morning, was not expected to threaten land. But a second tropical storm, Franklin, formed in the Caribbean on Sunday afternoon with winds of 45 miles per hour. It could affect Haiti and the Dominican Republic as early as Monday afternoon.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June to November, and forecasters are bracing for an especially unpredictable few months. An El Niño pattern, like the one expected to ramp up this season, typically impedes the formation of Atlantic hurricanes. But at the same time, extremely warm waters are unnerving experts and coastal residents, with heightened sea surface temperatures posing a range of threats, including the ability to supercharge storms.

That unusual confluence of factors led forecasters to raise their expectations for the number of named tropical cyclones this hurricane season to between 14 and 21 from between 12 and 17. But it also led them to acknowledge that the circ*mstances were puzzling and that solid predictions were even more difficult to make.

“Stuff just doesn’t feel right,” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. “There’s just a lot of kind of screwy things that we haven’t seen before.”

Livia Albeck-Ripka, Anna Betts, Aline Corpus, Jill Cowan, Gaya Gupta, Judson Jones, Soumya Karlamangla, Corina Knoll, James C. McKinley Jr., Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting.

A correction was made on

Aug. 21, 2023


An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Tropical Storm Hilary’s place in California history. It was the first tropical storm to hit the state in 26 years, not in more than eight decades.

How we handle corrections

Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief. Before moving to California he reported from more than 40 countries for The Times and International Herald Tribune, mainly in Europe and Southeast Asia. More about Thomas Fuller

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Storm That Killed at Least One in Mexico Drenches Southern California (2024)


Storm That Killed at Least One in Mexico Drenches Southern California? ›

Storm That Killed at Least One in Mexico Drenches Southern California. Tropical Storm Hilary brings widespread flooding and small landslides, as authorities fear more significant damage could be coming.

What happened hurricane Hilary? ›

Hilary first slammed into Mexico's arid Baja California Peninsula as a hurricane, causing one death and widespread flooding before becoming a tropical storm, one of several potentially catastrophic natural events affecting California on Sunday.

What are the names of the tropical storms in 2023? ›

This year, the 21 names are: Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Don, Emily, Franklin, Gert, Harold, Idalia, Jose, Katia, Lee, Margot, Nigel, Ophelia, Philippe, Rina, Sean, Tammy, Vince and Whitney.

What was the worst flood in California history? ›

Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California's recorded history occurred, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth.

What does a Category 4 hurricane look like? ›

Category 4: 130-156 mph. Catastrophic damage can result from these winds. Well-built homes will be heavily damaged, with most of the roof blown away. Trees and power lines will be down.

What was the biggest hurricane deaths? ›

The Great Galveston Hurricane decimated the island city on the Gulf Coast of Texas on Sept. 8, 1900. This hurricane is known as the deadliest weather disaster in United States history, killing at least 8,000 people, with some estimates as high as 12,000 people.

What was the most tragic hurricane? ›

The 30 Deadliest U.S. Mainland Hurricanes
1.Great Galveston Hurricane (TX)1900
2.Lake Okeechobee (FL)1928
3.Katrina (LA/MS/FL/GA/AL)2005
4.Cheniere Caminanda (LA)1893
26 more rows

What name will be given to the 1st hurricane or tropical storm of 2023? ›

The first day of the Atlantic hurricane season was June 1, and the first hurricane of 2023 was named Arlene. All of the hurricanes that form this year will have a predetermined name.

What was the worst hurricane in 2023? ›

  • 2023 Hurricane Idalia. Skip Navigation. Within Events. Floods. ...
  • 2023 Hurricane Idalia. August 26, 2023. Hurricane Idalia was a powerful Category 4 hurricane that caused significant damage across parts of the southeastern United States, especially in Northern Florida, during the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season.
Aug 26, 2023

What is the hypothetical hurricane season 2023? ›


The CSU outlook expects 13 named storms to form, with six that could become hurricanes. Forecasters expect two could reach major status with winds of at least 115 mph and a storm surge of at least nine feet.

Which California city has the most flooding? ›

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles is one of the most flood-prone cities in California. Virtually every single county in California has been declared a flood disaster area several times in the past. However, Los Angeles is one of the most flood-prone cities in the state.

What areas in California are at the highest risk of a flood? ›

The San Francisco Bay Area is among the regions at risk for excessive rainfall that could trigger flooding on creeks, streams, rivers, roadways and low-lying areas. Rain graphics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on March 8, 2023.

When was the last flood in Southern California? ›

Periods of heavy rainfall caused by multiple atmospheric rivers in California between December 31, 2022 and March 25, 2023 resulted in floods that affected parts of Southern California, the California Central Coast, Northern California and Nevada.

Can a house survive a Category 4 hurricane? ›

A Category 4 storm can cause significant damage to frame-built homes, too. Even well-built homes could sustain damage to the roof, doors and windows.

Is there a Category 6 hurricane? ›

First things first, there is no such thing is a Category 6 hurricane. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale rates hurricanes from 1 to 5; with Category 5 being the most extreme. This scale is based on sustained wind speed alone. If there was a storm brewing out there, meteorologists would certainly be talking about it.

Can a house withstand a Category 4 hurricane? ›

A Category 4 hurricane can easily create massive destruction due to the wind speed ranging between 130-156 mph. These strong winds can often wholly tear the roof and siding from your house.

How did hurricane Laura end? ›

On August 29, Laura degenerated into a remnant low over Kentucky, before being absorbed into another extratropical storm near the East Coast of the U.S. shortly afterward. Overall, Laura caused more than $23.3 billion in damage and 81 deaths.

What happened in hurricane Camille? ›

Many communities were partially destroyed in Nelson and neighboring counties with 8,931 people injured, 5,662 homes destroyed, and 13,915 homes experiencing major damage. The flash floods and mudslides generated by Camille's heavy rains caused $140 million (1969 USD) worth of damage in Virginia and took 153 lives.

What happened to hurricane names in 1953? ›

In 1953, the United States abandoned a confusing two-year old plan to name storms by a phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie) when a new, international phonetic alphabet was introduced. That year, the United States began using female names for storms.

What hurricane happened in 1957? ›

Hurricane Audrey, which struck near the Louisiana- Texas border in June, was one of the most destructive June hurricanes of record and the first to occur in that month since 1945. The other two hurricanes, Carrie and Frieda, remained at sea in the Atlantic.

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