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San Diego residents describe their escape from flooding

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

They fled to the rooftops. Abandoned cars in the middle of raging waters. I grabbed kayaks to cross the flooded streets. I looked for neighbors and yelled at strangers.

The rare torrent of rain that hit the San Diego area Monday forced many residents to experience life-threatening scenes that they found hard to believe even as they recounted them.

Officials would later call it a miracle that no one died and very few people were injured during a suddenly catastrophic storm that prompted state and local leaders to declare a state of emergency.

“What happened yesterday was extraordinary,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.

On Tuesday, authorities assessed the damage in a region where very few residents have flood insurance. The record pace of precipitation – a deluge of nearly three inches in three hours – quickly overwhelmed drainage systems. According to the National Weather Service, this is the fourth largest total ever recorded in San Diego’s history, dating back to 1850.

Many residents face losses that seem more impossible than their harrowing escapes. Some questioned why government officials didn’t do more to warn residents or ask them to evacuate before they were surrounded by floodwaters. Others were still in disbelief that their belongings had been destroyed in an instant.

“Electronics, clothes, photos, memories, everything is gone. I lost everything in this flood,” Luis Reyes said of the apartment he shares with his family. “All my memories are gone.”

Pictureluis reyes, wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and jeans, moves a bed on which there is a drawer filled with clothes and other personal items.
Luis Reyes sorts out his apartment in National City, just south of San Diego, a day after it was flooded.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

Floodwaters threw parked cars onto each other in San Diego.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

Mr. Reyes, 18, was at 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 grab a shoebox full of greeting cards and his two Chihuahuas, before climbing out of his bedroom window. Outside, he saw floating vehicles crashing into each other.

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“It looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie,” said Mr. Reyes, who works as a barista at Starbucks.

A few miles away, in San Diego’s Southcrest neighborhood, they were cleaning up debris-filled yards, overwhelmed by the task that awaited them inside their homes where mud covered the floors. Broken fences were a mess in the streets. Soiled furniture dotted the sidewalks.

Duncan MacLuan, 34, and his roommate had climbed onto their roof during the storm and waited hours for the water to subside. They watched the others do the same. Some residents jumped on jet skis or longboards to try to rescue stranded people and animals.

“We had dogs and cats on the roof right next to us,” Mr MacLuan said. “It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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

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

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


In San Diego’s Southcrest neighborhood, residents were cleaning up debris-filled yards.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

Part of the cleanup effort included dislodging cars displaced by floodwaters in San Diego’s Mountain View neighborhood.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

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 a.m. for other areas, including the city of San Diego. Each was followed by cell phone emergency alerts to some residents.

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

“Many parts of the country don’t have a giant ocean next to them or hills or different types of terrain,” Tardy said. “So there are complications. It’s not really an excuse, but there are always those variables.

As was the case elsewhere in California during last year’s atmospheric rivers, several of the neighborhoods hit Monday were among San Diego’s poorest. Residents whose homes were flooded said they had worried for years that nearby canals were not properly maintained and left them vulnerable.

“These communities of concern, these underinvested communities have clearly and demonstrably been hit the hardest throughout the region,” said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of Groundwork San Diego-Chollas Creek, which works with residents and nonprofit organizations. nonprofit along the submerged Chollas Creek watershed. Monday. “These are communities marked by disproportionate pollution, unemployment and chronic health problems, and all of these will be exacerbated by future climate challenges. It’s heartbreaking.

Rep. Juan Vargas, a Democrat whose district encompasses southwest San Diego County, starting along the Mexican border, said Tuesday his office was fielding calls from distraught homeowners wondering how they were going to pay for the damage. Only 8,128 of 1.15 million households in San Diego County have flood insurance.

“A lot of people are uninsured and a lot of people are going to have a lot of damage,” Mr. Vargas said, adding that his office is working with the federal government to see what help is available.

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“We are currently trying to work out a solution with FEMA to see if we can do something for them,” he said. “And the damage is considerable.”

Driving around his district during the storm, Mr. Vargas noticed clogged drainage channels, which he said meant legal action against local governments was likely.


Lara Lockwood standing in her home after it was damaged by flooding in San Diego.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

On Tuesday, authorities were assessing the damage in a region where only a tiny percentage of residents have flood insurance.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times

“Certainly the city, for whatever reason, has not been able to maintain them,” Mr. Vargas said. “Cities have tight budgets and I sympathize with them. »

San Diego city officials estimated that its infrastructure suffered between $6 million and $7 million in damage. Mayor Gloria said no drainage system would have been able to handle the sudden deluge that hit San Diego on Monday, but he acknowledged the city needs to build more storm defenses in the future. He said residents may have to pay more for improvements and maintenance as climate change causes more intense storms.

“The rain patterns of the past are not what they are today, and they are not what they are becoming,” said Kris McFadden, the city’s deputy director of operations. “It’s something we need to plan for.”

On Tuesday morning, the Reyes family, who had spent the night in a shelter, returned to the home where they had lived for a decade to take stock of what they could salvage. They found nothing but a swampy mess.

Dirt covered the soggy carpet. Water was dripping onto the linoleum floor. The sofas they had recently purchased were completely soaked. Their belongings had been scattered, strewn across the rooms. A musty smell spread everywhere.

Dulce Reyes, 24, had just found a job at Sephora after two months of unemployment and was wondering how she would get to work. The family’s cars were underwater. A friend had driven them home from the Red Cross shelter where they spent Monday night.

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

“Everything is a mess,” she said. “It’s like it’s starting all over again.”