A combination of high tides and violent surf Friday night on the Balboa Peninsula flooded homes, reduced a sailboat to splinters and prompted several near-death rescues offshore, according to authorities.
The flooding was centered near A Street and East Balboa Boulevard, said Newport Beach police Sgt. Steve Oberon.
The flooding was about knee deep and had reached three blocks inland.
In addition to street flooding, the big waves and extreme high tide also flooded the beach parking lot near the Balboa Pier. Lifeguards scrambled through the day with several dangerous rescues.
“All three rescue boats were very busy with several near-death rescues that occurred,” said Newport Beach Lifeguard Skeeter Leeper.
Police were spotted pumping water near Main Street, and witnesses reported that a house near Lifeguard Tower P had flooded. A couple in a golf cart handed out water bottles to people stuck in their cars. A large sailboat that washed ashore at Coronado Street was in splinters, said witness Diane Edmunds.
The swell, the biggest of the year so far, was expected to build on Friday but showed up in force. The waves should be even bigger on Saturday, July 4.
Diane Edmonds, a photographer who was out shooting the Wedge, was stuck in traffic for more than an hour, waiting with her car turned off with a line of others as traffic stopped on Friday evening. “Water came up like a lake, that lake turned into a river. The whole pathway was just like a river.”
Edmonds said the water was flowing up from the Newport Harbor, flowing over breakwalls into the streets, and was also coming from the ocean side.
She watched a bulldozer head toward the Wedge, likely to build a berm to protect houses. Some people said a lifeguard tower had been destroyed by waves. Edmonds said the waves were so strong, beachfront houses were getting slammed, something she’s never seen in her years shooting the Wedge.
“Water was going up to houses, big lakes everywhere. A full-on river flowed out to the road and down the streets around Wedge,” she said. “As we left the beach, there was a river of shoes all along the path to Wedge and all the way down the street. I was trying to grab them and match up pairs for anyone looking.”
The area is prone to flooding when big waves combine with an extreme high tide, which reached 6.7 feet at 8:33 p.m. Waves are expected to be even greater on Saturday, reaching up to 20 feet at the Wedge, with a 6.6-foot tide at 9:15 p.m.
“It’s going to be worse tomorrow night, it’s higher tide. The swell didn’t even peak yet, I can’t image what tomorrow will be like,” she said.
The last time Newport Beach flooded from high tide and big surf was July 12, 2018. However, it was less severe than what the Balboa Peninsula endured Friday, witnesses said.
The beach is shut down for the Fourth of July as well as on Sunday, July 5, a decision local officials made after other Southern California beaches started announcing closures earlier in the week. They feared crowds would flood into Newport Beach during the big swell, and worry heightened after two lifeguards tested positive for coronavirus and several others were forced into quarantine.
Capistrano Beach in Dana Point also was getting battered by the big waves. A concrete beam across the end of the parking lot was broken, said Toni Nelson, who heads a community group called Capo Cares.
“Mother Nature just eating up our parking lot,” she said. “The county has red-marked much of the remaining sidewalk at Capo. It’s broken and undermined and they need to remove it so people don’t get hurt. It’s just so sad to see our little beach disappearing.”
Along with the web of freeways and busy interchanges, Southern California’s cities are also tied together by a vast network of rivers, creeks and flood canals.
Most of the time, much of this network is bone dry, forming pencil-thin lines along the regional map. Though when heavy rains begin to fall, as they did Thursday in nearly record-breaking levels, the waterways can quickly swell into bulging limbs, grabbing people, vehicles, homes, debris — anything within their reach. In at least two cases Thursday, the flood waters claimed the lives of two people: a man in the rural Riverside County community of Sage and a 20 year old woman who was swept from Riverside into Corona along a flood canal.
Just a dozen days earlier, an elderly man was killed in Yucca Valley in San Bernardino County when the vehicle he was in was overcome by rushing waters in a wash from a storm on Feb. 2. Two others managed to escape the overturned vehicle.
For the fire and law enforcement agencies responsible for dropping a lifeline to the residents who come in contact with the region’s potentially lethal waterways, Thursday was especially busy and dangerous. In all, rescue crews in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties pulled at least 50 people from the raging flood waters.
“For us, this might be the most we’ve had in a day for water rescues, maybe in the last 10 years — maybe period,” said Capt. Frank Abril with the Riverside County Fire Department and Cal Fire. He led a helicopter crew that rescued six people from swift water scenarios Thursday.
His crew faced obstacles that added risk to the operations. Low-hanging clouds limited visibility, the helicopter risked being caught in nearby trees and debris kicked up from homeless encampments could have jammed the rotor system.
Though for Abril, who has served as captain of his crew for the past decade, he said he no longer gets nervous or anxious before operations.
“You have a mental checklist that you’re reading off. You trust your gear, your training — cant really say there’s any anxiety,” Abril said. “It becomes routine,”
In short, the routine looks like this: Officials get a call about a rescue. A pilot starts the engine of the military-grade helicopter, a UH-1H, which sits at a Hemet airport. Six other crew members drape gear over their bodies — dry suits, harnesses, white helmets, radios, flotation devices and egress bottles that provide oxygen in case the helicopter crashes into the water. This takes about four minutes. Each crew member is wearing ear protection, but they can still hear the turbine engine whining as it starts up. They hop into the helicopter that weighs well over two tons. The aircraft rises and flies at about 120 miles per hour. The crew locates the patient. Once a plan is coordinated, the crew will typically use a cable system to hoist the patient into the helicopter, fastening them with a seat belt. They fly back to Hemet. The patient is evaluated by paramedics, sometimes transported to a hospital. The crew debriefs. They clean and inspect their gear. The helicopter is refueled. The crew waits for the next call.
Abril and his crew repeated this routine three times Thursday.
The day began in Cabazon, a desert community off the 10 Freeway in northeast Riverside County, where a man and woman drove their car into a flooded road. Underestimating the rising current, the car was shoved off the road and into the water. The pair called 9-1-1, stood on the roof of their car and awaited rescue. Abril said the water, which moved at about 25 miles per hour, tipped the car to its side, knocking the pair into the water. They were swept over to a nearby sandbar, while the water hauled their car downstream. After a 16-minute flight from Hemet, Abril and his crew landed on the sandbar and scooped the man and woman into the aircraft.
West of Cabazon, the Santa Ana River, which snakes through Riverside and San Bernardino counties, held dozens captive among its torrential grip.
The Santa Ana River is where Abril’s crew closed its day. In Jurupa Valley where the riverbed widens, his crew rescued a man who stood atop a makeshift shelter as water surged around him.
In San Bernardino County, helicopter crews with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department rescued 15 people who were trapped among the Santa Ana’s angry flow.
In Riverside, a 20-year-old transient named Stacie Mills-Nichols and her boyfriend were dragged into the concrete flood canal that they had called home. The two tried to hold on to a wooden pallet. Somewhere along the canal, as the water whisked them past homes, businesses, and freeways, Mills-Nichols let go. Nearly 10 miles downstream from her encampment, Corona rescue crews found her unconscious body in a muddy runoff that flows directly into the Santa Ana River. She was pronounced dead at a local hospital Thursday morning.
By the afternoon, emergency alerts went out to people’s cell phones across both counties: “Santa Ana River unsafe-GET OUT NOW. Stay away from river and waterways leading to river.”
The 96-mile-long river also cuts through Orange County, mostly in the form of a concrete canal, before emptying into the ocean.
Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito said fire crews are trained to rescue people who may fall into the river. He said county fire crews were not called to any swift water rescues in the past year. “It is rare, but you see it,” he said.
In Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers pose similar risks to residents. On Thursday, crews with the Los Angeles County Fire Department used a raft to rescue three people who were stuck in a tree surrounded by water flowing from the San Gabriel River.
Jason Robertson, battalion chief of the department’s public information office, said that every county firefighter is trained to conduct shore-based water rescues. In trickier situations, tactical units use rafts, Jet Skis, or helicopters, as was the case during a January storm when fire crews hoisted a man living along the San Gabriel River in the City of Industry who awoke to storm waters rising quickly around him.
Robertson said law enforcement agencies are tasked with alerting people who live inside the riverbeds, warning them of oncoming storms. Such is the case in Corona, where police use their HOPE team to reach the many homeless people who sleep in or near rivers and canals.
Corona is a meeting point for many flood canals in the region, said Capt. Ryan Rolston, spokesman for the city’s fire department. The high volume of flood canals may spell an increase in risk for both victims who get caught in storm waters and the crews who rescue them. On Thursday, Corona crews rescued nine people. Most were living in riverbed encampments. Among them was Mills-Nichols and her boyfriend, who also lived together in a Riverside canal.
Rolston said fire crews train for these operations year-round, but Thursday’s storm brought the highest volume of rescues he has seen since starting at the department in 2004.
From his time there, Rolston could not recall another death during a swift water event. He said in the event of a fatality, counselors and psychologists are made available to the fire crews. But sometimes, talking things out among each other may be the best way to deal with potentially traumatic situations, Rolston said. Thursday’s deadly storm was no exception.
“We’re such a close-knit family, and we all worked with each other for a long time,” he said. “We all speak to each other openly. That’s usually the best way.”
LOS ANGELES >> Gusty winds today will buffet much of the Southland, where record-setting temperature highs are expected early next week, forecasters said.
The winds expected today and tonight result from a tightening northerly pressure gradient, according to a National Weather Service statement.
And early next week, “strong high pressure and a weak to moderate Santa Ana wind event will produce record-setting hot temperatures across Southwest California,” it said. The hottest days will be Monday and Tuesday, when highs near or above 100 degrees are expected in the Santa Monica mountains and in coastal and valley regions of L.A., Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
In the Santa Monica Mountains, overnight temperatures are expected to be high early next week, dropping down only to the mid to upper 70s and lower 80s, the statement said.
In the meantime, a wind advisory will be in effect from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today in the Antelope Valley, where winds of 25-35 miles per hour are expected, along with 55-mph gusts. Even stronger gusts are expected west of the 14 Freeway, forecasters said.
“Gusty winds will make driving difficult, especially for high-profile vehicles,” warned an NWS statement. “Areas of blowing dust can suddenly and dangerously reduce visibility to near zero.”
In the San Gabriel Mountains in both L.A. and Ventura counties, a wind advisory will be in force until 3 a.m. Saturday. Until then, forecasters expect winds of between 20 and 35 mph gusting to 55 mph.
Then, in the new week, an excessive heat watch will be in effect from Monday morning through Tuesday evening along the L.A County coast, in beach cities, metropolitan Los Angeles including the Downtown area, the Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and San Gabriel valleys, as well as coastal and valley areas of Ventura County. Highs Tuesday could reach 106, forecasters said.
“The very high temperatures create a dangerous situation in which heat illnesses are possible,” warned an NWS statement. “Temperatures inside vehicles, even if the windows are partially open, can quickly rise to life-threatening levels. Never, ever leave people or pets in enclosed vehicles, even for a short period of time.”
Today’s temperature highs are expected to be in the mid 70s in Downtown L.A. and the valleys but several degrees higher Saturday and over the days that follow.