Heavy rains and strong winds associated with what is now a tropical storm have moved past Palm Springs, but not before causing massive flooding, service interruptions, and multiple road closures. A local state of emergency was declared just before 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, but it may be days or weeks before the extent of the damage is known.
The National Weather Service reported approximately 3.2 inches of rain fell at Palm Springs International Airport on Sunday, easily making it the wettest August day on record in the city. Plenty of water is still flowing through the washes that surround the city, fueled by rains that pelted nearby mountains. The risk of flash flooding remains and a flood watch remains in effect.
Sunday’s rainfall totals came close, but did not surpass, the 3.7 inches recorded during the Valentine’s Day storm of 2019. The heaviest dose fell in the 2 p.m. hour, when nearly a full inch of rain was recorded at the airport. Wind gusts of up to 45 mph were reported.
Unlike the 2019 storm, which arrived almost without warning, residents, city officials, and first responders had days to prepare for the arrival of Tropical Storm Hilary. That preparation may have paid off.
While dramatic images from Palm Springs played out on local and national television broadcasts, Palm Springs Fire Department Capt. Nathan Gunkel said there had been no deaths or serious injuries reported as a result of the storm.
Fire crews, including a task force deployed to the city from Northern California, performed a total of two swift water rescues Sunday and also fielded multiple calls about damaged power lines and downed trees. Several fire alarms were tripped, Gunkel said, but those were due to water intruding into buildings.
There were scattered reports on social media of flooded homes in the city, as well as power outages throughout the Coachella Valley. Southern California Edison is currently reporting very few outages in the city, impacting roughly 30 people. The city’s 911 system went down at about 10 p.m. Sunday, but is now back up. Phone lines at City Hall, which were earlier down, are now to receive calls.
At the city’s Emergency Operations Center on Sunday morning, California Gov. Gavin Newsom met with city leaders, elected officials and emergency personnel, getting a briefing on what the city should expect, what it has done to prepare, and the importance of completing bridge work over the area washes.
“The Governor offered whatever assistance he could provide in this time of need and city staff provided an update on what has been done to get our community ready for an unprecedented deluge,” a city statement on social media read. “By the way, the need for an elevated bridge along North Indian Canyon Drive was also discussed.”
Outside Fire Station 2, as rain began to fall harder, Gunkel and several firefighter/paramedics were busy handing out sandbags to residents who continued to request them. Just down the street, volunteers and city employees were filling the bags with sand at a pit behind City Hall.
Gunkel said the city was able to get 60,000 sandbags to residents and business owners during the past three days. He was hopeful they wouldn’t be needed, but realistic that the predicted storm would arrive as promised.
At Frisky Business Cat Cafe in Rimrock Plaza off East Palm Canyon Drive, owner Claire Rogers watched nervously as storm water began to collect in the parking lot adjacent to the north side of her business. Like many business owners, she had stacked sandbags along the side of her business in hopes of keeping water out.
Unlike many others, however, her business is directly adjacent to the edge of nearby hillsides. She had set up a makeshift bed, planning to stay with the cats, but with the water rising and starting to cascade down from the steep rocks just outside her business’s windows, she began considering other plans, including the possible evacuation of the dozen cats who reside there to higher ground.
Just outside the front door of Rogers’ businesses, motorists were already experiencing difficulties of their own and learning that when heavy rain hits roadways are quickly inundated, making driving dangerous.
Down the street, where Riverside County is still working to complete an extensive flood control project off East Palm Canyon Drive, residents of a mobile home park hit hard during the 2019 Valentine’s Day flood reported that unfinished parts of the project were undamaged as of Sunday evening. County crews were on hand to monitor a catch basin still under construction.
While the city shut off access to parts of Indian Canyon, North Gene Autry Trail and East Vista Chino — areas where washes would receive the brunt of the flooding — it was quick to close off even more roadways Sunday afternoon.
El Cielo at Mesquite, Farrell Drive between Mesquite and Ramon Road, the Dinah Shore Bridge from Palm Springs into Cathedral City, and Golf Club Drive at the wash were all closed around 3 p.m. At 5:20 p.m. it was announced that Araby Drive at the wash was also closed, and at 6:15 p.m. the city announced Highway 111 at Gateway Drive was closed, effectively shutting off all but one path into or out of the city.
While some roads have started to re-open, motorists are being asked to travel only if absolutely necessary. Palm Springs police created this map of the closures, which they are trying to update in real time.
Elsewhere in the valley, SunLine Transit Agency has suspended service due to road conditions, and Interstate 10 remains shut down from Haugen Lehmann to Bob Hope Drive after water and mud flowed across multiple lanes.
While many city roadways closed as the rains hit, other intersections in the city were inundated with water, making driving dangerous. The main roads downtown — where most businesses are shut for the day — were full of water. In several spots, it was seen rising to the doors of parked vehicles.
Given the roadway conditions and the impact the storm is having on on families, and out of an abundance of caution, the Palm Springs Unified School District announced that schools would be closed on Monday. District officials said they hope to resume normal operations and classes on Tuesday. College of the Desert also announced its classrooms and other facilities would not be open until Friday.
Hilary escalated to a Category 4 hurricane but subsequently weakened to a tropical storm just before reaching the California coast on Sunday. By early this morning it had degraded further and is now considered a subtropical cyclone. According to the National Hurricane Center, it should further disperse throughout the day and eventually dissipate completely.
Editor’s note: This is a developing story and will be updated as we learn more.