12 have died since snow cut off California’s mountain towns, an official says

Michelle Hake’s sister has been snowed in for days, alone in her Big Bear home. Her family said it wasn’t clear how urgent her medical needs had become during last month’s record-breaking snowstorms and the treacherous days that followed.

She “needed medical attention in the middle of the storm and we couldn’t get her that,” Hake said. Her family requested an emergency wellness check Monday.

“We were late,” she said.

Deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department found Hake’s sister dead shortly after 9 a.m., said agency spokeswoman Mara Rodriguez. A cause of death was not determined, but Rodriguez said there was no evidence of trauma or suspicious circumstances.

Hake, who asked that her adult sister not be identified, declined to explain her sister’s medical history or the reasons that may have led to her death. But she said she had no doubt her sister would have gotten the care she needed if the storms hadn’t trapped her inside.

“We were trying to get someone to check on her,” Hake said. “There was literally no access to her; She lives alone. And for so many who are [stuck] in their homes, that is their story.”

Rodriguez said at least two other people in San Bernardino’s mountain communities have been found dead by official welfare checks since Feb. 23, when the historic snowstorms began. One was found dead in Big Bear and the other in Valley of Enchantment, a neighborhood in Crestline.

However, the agency has also responded to nine other deaths since the storms, Rodriguez said — 12 in total.

“So far we can only confirm [one], a traffic accident, than weather related,” Rodriguez said. “Preliminary information on the other deaths does not indicate that they are weather related, but these investigations are ongoing.”

But many mountaineers speaking to The Times, some of whom found neighbors or friends dead in their homes, said they undoubtedly had the massive storms and the dire aftermath – the blocked roads, lack of heating, cellphone signal and food – likely to do so contributed, if not caused, the victims.

“I don’t think people realize how bad it is right now,” Hake said. “We’re literally trying to find people like my sister, people who are at home and whose lives are on the line.”

At a Big Bear Lake City Council meeting Wednesday night, Laura Johnson, in public comments, told council members that a friend who lived in the area died during the storms because a dialysis provider was unable to access her home.

“They didn’t allow the driver to pick up my friend who needed dialysis three days a week,” Johnson said. “And he passed.”

Many fear this is just the beginning while people keep digging.

“The scale of the casualties and the scale of the storm … I just can’t stress enough how devastating it was,” Hake said.

In the Skyland community of Crestline, Rhea-Frances Tetley said her 93-year-old neighbor Elinor “Dolly” Avenatti was found dead Tuesday.

Avenatti may have been older, Tetley said, but she’s lively and a fixture in her community.

“She was a joy to the neighborhood,” Tetley said. “She was feisty and independent… and generous beyond measure.”

Avenatti has been active in seniors’ groups, baking for neighbors, taking daily walks ahead of the storm, and collecting bottles and cans to donate to animal rights groups, Tetley said.

She feared that a week without electricity, locked in her cold house behind mountains of snow, could have been Avenatti’s death. Tetley said neighbors had been delivering food and searching for the woman for about a week, but on Monday – the day power was restored to her street – the 90-year-old did not answer her door. On Tuesday, neighbors went inside and found her dead.

“She didn’t have heat,” Tetley said. “I think she froze to death in the house.”

Tetley said that shortly after Avenatti’s body was found, her road was finally plowed due to emergency responders having to respond to the death.

For nearly two weeks, many people living in mountain communities from Crestline to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear have been trapped under massive amounts of snow — more than 100 inches in places — while officers scramble to clear roads and post-encounter remedial action care for. Backstorms have ravaged the region with blizzards and unrelenting snowfall. Residents were without power for days, roofs and decks collapsed, gas leaks sparked storm-related fires, and entire neighborhoods struggled for food and gas supplies.

As of Wednesday morning, about 95% of San Bernardino County’s roads had been cleared, officials said, but noted that many of those roads were still only wide enough to accommodate single-lane traffic. Almost 30 miles of roads are still unplowed.

Hake and her family were without power at their home in Crestline for at least five days, she said, eventually moving to a friend’s house to wait until power was restored and the roads were clear. She said that for days there was no way she could get to Big Bear to check on her sister, or even to her parents’ home in Lake Arrowhead.

“It feels like we’re living in an alternate reality up here,” Hake said. As President of the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, she helps coordinate supply shipments and facilitates wellness checks throughout the mountain community—even before her sister was found dead.

She said during one of those checks, a neighbor found an elderly man at his home where “he had been rationing a frozen tamale for the past five days.”

“Right now our focus is still on reaching out to people in need and holding everyone accountable [for]’ said Hook.

Aaron Creighton, who lives in Crestline’s Cedarpines Park community, said an elderly neighbor who lived across the street from him was reported dead at his home Wednesday morning. The man had been ill for some time, Creighton said, but he feared the stress of the storm was hastening his decline.

“There’s the stuff that’s going to hurt you right away and that’s obvious, and then there’s the stress that comes with that stuff,” said Creighton, owner and publisher of the community’s hyperlocal newspaper, Alpine Mountaineer. “It’s incredibly stressful not being able to leave the house.”

He said the neighbor, who he declined to identify, didn’t live alone, but he wasn’t sure how often his roommates checked on the man and said no one in the house dug their driveway. Firefighters spent at least 30 minutes digging through snow to get to the man’s home and transport his body, Creighton said.

“It’s not the end,” Creighton said. “We have a lot of people who are completely cut off and stranded right now.”

Megan Vasquez, who founded a food distribution center for Valley of Enchantment, said she’s heard of at least two people who died during the storms — and agreed with Creighton’s dire prediction.

“I have a feeling that when all is said and done, there will be a large body count,” Vasquez said. “There are a lot of older people who are isolated in their homes and have nothing, and there will be more people who have died.”

Kristy Baltezore found one of her Crestline neighbors dead after going to check on her. The woman Baltezore refused to identify was neither ill nor disabled.

“It’s not good,” Baltezore said. “We still have half of our community that we haven’t reached out to.”

Rodriguez, the San Bernardino sheriff’s spokesman, said the number of official welfare checks has dropped significantly in recent days. She said the authorities make home visits on the same day that social assistance is requested.

“We continue to respond to emergency calls for our mountaineers,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

If someone needs help checking on a neighbor or loved one, officers are encouraged to call 911 or the county’s Storm Response Call Center at (909) 387-3911.

Times editors Summer Lin and Christian Martinez contributed to this report.


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