San Diego, Calif. • Deadly floodwaters inundated streets across Mexico’s arid Baja California on Sunday as Tropical Storm Hilary moved ashore carrying torrential rain into Southern California, and concerns mounted that flash floods could damage places as far north as Idaho that rarely get such heavy rain.
Forecasters said Hilary was the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years, bringing the potential for flash floods, mudslides, isolated tornadoes, high winds and power outages.
Hilary made landfall along the Mexican coast in a sparsely populated area about 150 miles (250 kilometers) south of Ensenada, on a path to hit mudslide-prone Tijuana Sunday evening, threatening the improvised homes that cling to hillsides just south of the U.S. border.
At least nine million people were under flash-flood warnings as heavy rain fell across normally sunny Southern California ahead of the brunt of the storm. Desert areas were especially susceptible to flooding, along with hillsides with burn scars from wildfires, forecasters warned.
Mud spilled onto highways, water overwhelmed drainage systems and tree branches fell in places from San Diego to Los Angeles. The weather service said tornadoes were possible Sunday afternoon in eastern San Diego County.
Other western states could be hit with once-in-a-century rains, with a good chance Hilary could break all-time records as the wettest known tropical cyclone to douse Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Hilary was expected to remain a tropical storm into central Nevada early Monday before dissipating.
By Sunday afternoon, Hilary was just south-southeast of San Diego, the National Hurricane Center reported. Hilary had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph) and was moving northwest at 25 mph (41 kph).
Hurricane Center Director Michael Brennan said that while Hilary had weakened from a Category 4 hurricane, it’s the water, not the wind, that people should watch out for most. He said some areas could get the amount of rain in hours that they typically get in an entire year.
“You do not want to be out driving around, trying to cross flooded roads on vehicle or on foot,” Brennan added during a briefing from Miami. “Rainfall flooding has been the biggest killer in tropical storms and hurricanes in the United States in the past 10 years and you don’t want to become a statistic.”
Hilary is just the latest major climate disaster to wreak havoc across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Hawaii’s island of Maui is still reeling from last week’s blaze that killed over 100 people and ravaged the historic town of Lahaina, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Firefighters in Canada are battling blazes during the nation’s worst fire season on record.
The Mexican cities of Ensenada and Tijuana, directly in the storm’s path, closed all beaches and opened a half-dozen shelters at sports complexes and government offices.
One person drowned Saturday in the Mexican town of Santa Rosalia when a vehicle was swept away in an overflowing stream. Rescue workers saved four other people, said Edith Aguilar Villavicencio, the mayor of Mulege township.
Brennan said rainfall could reach between 3 and 6 inches (7 centimeters and 15 centimeters) in many areas. Forecasters warned it could dump up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) — a year’s worth of rain — in some isolated areas.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has officials inside California’s emergency preparedness office and teams on standby with food, water and other help.
In coastal Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, 19-year-old Jack Johnson and his friends kept an eye on the waves, determined to surf them at some point Sunday.
“It’s really choppy out there, not really surfable yet, but I think we can find a good break somewhere later,” Johnson said. “I can’t remember a storm like this.”
Hilary left a long string of washed-out highways and roads up and down the Baja peninsula in its wake Sunday. Some of the worst damage occurred in the coastal towns of Mulege and Santa Rosalia, on the east side of the peninsula, where a man died Saturday after his family’s vehicle was swept away by a swollen stream. Four other occupants of the vehicle were rescued. Power lines were toppled in many places, and emergency personnel were working to restore power and reach those cut off by the storm.
In California, evacuation warnings were issued Saturday for Santa Catalina Island, urging residents and beachgoers to leave the tourist destination for the mainland, and for several mountain and foothill communities in San Bernardino County. Orange County sent an alert for anyone living in a wildfire burn scar in the Santa Ana Mountains’ Silverado and Williams canyons.
Los Angeles authorities scrambled to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters, and officials ordered all state beaches in San Diego and Orange counties closed.
Across the region, municipalities ran out of free sandbags and grocery shelves emptied out as residents stockpiled supplies. California’s Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve were closed to keep visitors from becoming stranded amid flooding.
“I urge everyone, everyone in the path of this storm, to take precautions and listen to the guidance of state and local officials,” President Joe Biden said.
Meanwhile, one of several budding storm systems in the Atlantic Ocean became Tropical Storm Emily on Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was located far from land, moving west in the open ocean.
In Sept. 1939, a tropical storm that roared into California ripped apart train tracks, tore houses from their foundations and capsized many boats, killing nearly 100 people on land and at sea.
Lebrija reported from Ensenada, Mexico. Associated Press contributors include Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida; Ignacio Martinez in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Mark Stevenson in Mexico City; Eugene Garcia in San Diego; and Ryan Sun and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles.