California in Crisis: Hurricane Hilary's Impact and the West Coast's Battle Against Extreme Elements

California in Crisis: Hurricane Hilary's Impact and the West Coast's Battle Against Extreme Elements

by Effy Lindström

If you don’t hail from the West Coast, it might surprise you to learn that–in spite of its 840 miles of sprawling coastline–California rarely experiences hurricanes.

As a matter of fact, nearly eight and a half decades have elapsed since a tropical storm made landfall in the Golden State–in 1939, before the United States had even devised a naming convention for storms.

It was with unprecedented strength, then, that Post Tropical Cyclone Hilary–with its unrelenting rains and ferocious winds–barreled through Southern California Sunday night, turning what many expected to be a typical dry summer into a disaster reminiscent of the Gulf Coast's infamous storm surges.

Indeed, the floods and mudslides triggered by the storm have left panicked Californians trapped in their cars, with some even resorting to climbing trees in a desperate attempt to escape the floodwaters. The impact has been profound: bridges have collapsed, power lines have been severed, and countless vehicles have been left stranded on submerged roads.

And as Hurricane Hilary continues to forge her path of destruction, pelting the state with rain and wind, worries about other harsh weather conditions loom. After all, this tropical storm has occurred within a broader context of climate crises throughout North America. Hawaii, for example, recently suffered its deadliest wildfire, which was exacerbated by hurricane winds. Meanwhile, Canada's British Columbia is besieged by raging wildfires, prompting mass evacuations.

What’s more, there are two wildfires currently raging in Washington state–a development that has already razed over 20,000 acres in Spokane County, claiming at least two lives.

All in all, the West Coast is experiencing a troubling constellation of extreme weather events, with the potential for further devastation. As we have learned from Hawaii, after all, strong hurricane winds can both spark and intensify dangerous wildfires–prompting California Governor Gavin Newsom to muse, “It’s certainly interesting times—tornadoes, lightning strikes, I’ve got CalFire worried about wildfires.”

Amid this uncertainty, safety remains a top priority, with many wondering: “What can I do to protect myself? My family?”

In this special report, we walk you through it, from the latest on Post Tropical Cyclone Hilary to the steps you can take to safeguard your loved ones from the compounding consequences of hurricanes.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    The Impact of Hurricane Hilary

  • 02

    The Danger of Airborne Threats

  • 03

    The Risk of Wildfires

  • 04

    Your Hurricane Kit

  • 05

    Final Thoughts

The Impact of Hurricane Hilary

pick up truck wading through hurricane waters

(Image courtesy of USA Today)

As Post Tropical Cyclone Hilary continues to roar through Southern California, 42 million residents of the state have been placed under flood warnings. Schools, too, are taking extra precautions, with dozens of school closures throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.

And as some desert regions experience three years’ worth of rainfall in as many days, local and federal personnel are springing into action, with Governor Newsom declaring a state of emergency. Accordingly, there are currently more than 7,500 boots on the ground in the state, supporting local communities with “resources, equipment, and expertise.”

This personnel–which includes rescue teams, National Guard soldiers, and emergency medical services–is dearly needed, too. After all, powerful gusts of 35 mph, in combination with persistent downpours, have brought down power lines and transformed streets into rivers, trapping dozens of motorists throughout California.

To compound the state's woes, Ventura County was hit by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake Sunday afternoon. This seismic event led to several aftershocks, with the ground shaking repeatedly throughout the night. Consequently, terrifying footage has emerged from an Ojai bar, where patrons were visibly shaken–both literally and figuratively–by the tremors.

Meanwhile, about 57,000 Californians were left without electricity due to the storm, with warnings of possible extended power outages.

This tempest, however, isn't staying put. It's feared that Hilary, having left her mark on California, will now turn her fury towards Nevada.

And if she does, it will be the first time this state experiences the wrath of a tropical storm. As such, Nevada has already issued flood warnings in anticipation of the onslaught.

The Danger of Airborne Threats

hurricane aftermath

(Image courtesy of Joe Raedle via Getty Images)

When a hurricane unleashes its fury, the structural integrity of buildings–especially their roofs–often comes under serious threat. This is because the sheer force of hurricane winds can rip roofs off buildings, exposing the interior to the elements and leaving households and businesses vulnerable to further damage.

But beyond the immediate threat to the structure, there's a more insidious danger: the release of hazardous particulates into the air.

Roofs, especially those that are older or in disrepair, can harbor various materials that pose risks when airborne. Chief among these hazards is asbestos, a known carcinogen that can lead to serious respiratory illnesses when inhaled. And though the substance was banned in 1977, the danger it poses remains, as houses built in the thirties, forties, and fifties–when it was used as insulation–frequently contain it.

Similarly, fiberglass insulation, when torn and distributed by forceful winds, can result in tiny fibers becoming airborne, causing irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract when they come in contact with humans.

Additionally, mold spores–dormant and thriving in damp roof areas–can be released during such hurricanes, leading to potential respiratory ailments, especially for those with allergies or compromised immune systems. In fact, reports suggest that cases of asthma in Puerto Rico–where the disease was already twenty-three percent more prevalent than on the mainland–have spiked since Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island in 2017.

Worth mentioning, too, is the fact that the combination of these particulates with heavy hurricane rains can create a hazardous sludge, contaminating water sources and affecting both environmental and human health. It's imperative, therefore, that post-hurricane clean-up and recovery efforts take into consideration not only the visible damage, but also the potential invisible threats lingering in the air.

The Risk of Wildfires

hurricane-induced wildfires

(Image courtesy of Erin Hawk via REUTERS)

Hurricanes bring other life-threatening risks, too–the most unexpected of which being wildfires.

Though hurricanes are normally associated with flooding and mudslides, they can also paradoxically lead to the ignition and exacerbation of wildfires, as recent events in Maui have shown.

But how is this possible?

One way that this seeming contradiction unfolds is through the redistribution of fuel by the high winds of a hurricane. When these powerful gusts uproot trees, dislodge branches, and scatter debris, they create a significant accumulation of flammable material on the ground.

And as the hurricane passes and its winds diminish, the residual debris begins to dry out due to the influx of warm, arid air from behind the storm. This dry fuel, coupled with lingering winds, serves as prime kindling, ready to catch fire at the slightest spark.

Furthermore, the rains that accompany hurricanes may not be evenly distributed across an area. While some regions experience heavy rainfall, others might receive only scattered showers or even remain relatively dry. Then, as the storm moves away, rising temperatures and diminishing humidity levels can rapidly evaporate any remaining moisture.

This drying effect leaves vegetation susceptible to ignition, setting the stage for fires to easily take root and spread.

Amplifying this effect is the distinct wind patterns associated with hurricanes.

More specifically, the phenomenon known as downslope winds–where air descends rapidly on the leeward side of mountains–can be intensified by a hurricane's presence. As these dry winds sweep across the landscape, they effectively evaporate moisture from plants, transforming them into fuel for potential fires.

In this way, the intricate interplay of hurricane winds and local topography can lead to the convergence of downslope winds with the storm's circulation, further facilitating wildfire conditions.

Thus, California–only a week after officials warned that the state’s fire risk was its highest level of the year–is facing the threat of wildfires on the heels of a hurricane.

Your Hurricane Kit

In light of the extreme and often unprecedented weather patterns pervading the country, it is prudent to prepare a hurricane kit, with adequate gear for every member of the family. This load-out should address the most common complications caused by hurricanes, from airborne threats to the threat of wildfires.

First, we strongly recommend the CM-6M. A full-face respirator, the CM-6M is commonly used by professional rescue squads–and for good reason. That’s because the CM-6M protects the wearer’s face, internal organs, and respiratory system from a wide spectrum of hazardous industrial chemicals. Plus, it has a large visor with a generous field of view–making it ideal for emergency situations.

MIRA Safety’s CM-6M respirator

MIRA Safety’s CM-6M respirator

Complementing this respirator is the ParticleMax filter, which affords protection from dangerous particulates in the air, like the ones released when a World War II-era attic is ripped open. In fact, this P3-rated device filters out 99.9999+% of airborne particulates.

Plus, the filter provides protection from viruses, which are always a concern when cold and wet conditions suppress the immune system's ability to fight off infections, potentially making one more susceptible to illness.

MIRA Safety’s ParticleMax filter

MIRA Safety’s ParticleMax filter

Rounding out your hurricane kit should be the VK-530 smoke filter. As previously mentioned, hurricanes bring with them an increased risk of dangerous wildfires. It is crucial, therefore, to pack a filter for the specific purpose of overcoming high concentrations of carbon monoxide. Note that this filter is rated for fifteen minutes at 5000 ppm–the standard for smoke escape filters–and can be used in environments with as little as 19.5% oxygen.

MIRA Safety’s VK-530 filter

Final Thoughts

Presently, millions of people on the West Coast are contending with extreme weather conditions.

In the north, in Washington, two wildfires–currently at 10% containment–are raging, causing Spokane County to declare a state of emergency. This, notably, mirrors the wildfires currently burning in Maui, where 114 people have tragically lost their lives.

Meanwhile, to the south, an unprecedented storm–currently designated as a post tropical cyclone–is bearing down on Southern California. Amid mudslides and power outages, concerns about other cascading effects, like airborne hazards and wildfires, loom large in the Golden State.

And as Hurricane Hilary continues her relentless assault, the underlying message from authorities remains clear: safety first. With the storm expected to move into new territories, like Nevada and potentially Oregon and Idaho, it remains crucial for residents to stay informed, prepared, and–above all else–safe.