Hurricane Hilary roared toward Mexico’s Baja California peninsula late Saturday as a downgraded but still dangerous Category 2 hurricane that bringing heavy rain likely to mean “catastrophic” flooding to the region and cross into the Southwest U.S. as a tropical storm.
Meteorologists warned that despite the hurricane’s weakening, the storm’s speed had accelerated Saturday, and they urged people to finish their preparations by sundown. By Sunday, one expert said, it would be too late.
Forecasters said the storm is still expected to enter the history books as the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years, and bring along flash floods, mudslides, isolated tornadoes, high winds and widespread power outages.
The hurricane is 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 more than 100 people and scorched the historic town of Lahaina, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. In Canada, firefighters on Saturday continued to battle blazes during the nation’s worst fire season on record.
Meanwhile, Hilary brought heavy rainfall and flooding to Mexico and the southwestern U.S. on Saturday, ahead of the storm’s expected Sunday border crossing. It’s expected to dump up to 25 centimeters — a year’s worth of rain for some areas — in southern California and southern Nevada.
“This does not lessen the threat, especially the flood threat,” said Jamie Rhome, the U.S. National Hurricane Center’s deputy director, during a Saturday briefing to announce the storm’s downgraded status. “Don’t let the weakening trend and the intensity lower your guard.”
Meteorologists also expect the storm to churn up life-threatening surf conditions and rip currents — including towering waves up to 12 meters high — along Mexico’s Pacific coast. Dozens sought refuge at storm shelters in the twin resorts of Los Cabos, at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, and firefighters used an inflatable boat to rescue a family in San Jose del Cabo after the resort was hit by driving rain and wind.
In Tijuana, Rafael Carrillo voiced the fear in the back of everyone’s mind in the border city of 1.9 million, particularly residents who live in homes that cling precariously to steep hillsides.
“If you hear noises, or the ground cracking, it is important for you to check it and get out as fast as possible, because the ground can weaken and your home could collapse,” said Carrillo, head of the Tijuana fire department.
That city ordered all beaches closed Saturday and set up a half-dozen storm shelters at sports complexes and government offices.
Mexico’s navy evacuated 850 people from islands off the Baja coast and deployed almost 3,000 troops for emergency operations. In La Paz, the picturesque capital of Baja California Sur state on the Sea of Cortez, police patrolled closed beaches to keep swimmers out of the whipped-up surf.
In the U.S., the Miami-based hurricane center issued tropical storm and potential flood warnings for Southern California from the Pacific Coast to interior mountains and deserts. The San Bernardino County sheriff on Saturday issued evacuation warnings for several mountain and foothill communities ahead of the storm.
And an evacuation advisory for the tourist destination of Santa Catalina Island, 37 kilometers off the Southern California coast, urged residents and beachgoers to leave, while authorities in Los Angeles scrambled to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters.
The White House said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the latest preparedness plans ahead of the hurricane’s turn to the U.S. “I urge everyone, everyone in the path of this storm, to take precautions and listen to the guidance of state and local officials,” he said.