MENDOCINO Co, CA, 2/6/23 — For some in northern Mendocino County, Monday marked day 12 without power. PG&E estimates being able to restore electricity by Tuesday, a spokesperson told The Mendocino Voice, but close to 300 households in remote high-elevation zones like Leggett and Piercy have endured freezing winter nights, steady snow accumulation, downed phone lines, roadways strewn with trees, and other hazards since the beginning of a vicious round of storms on Feb. 23.
“It’s pretty darn dangerous when you don’t have any means of communication,” Leggett resident Tonie Traina Berry told The Voice on Monday.
Captain Greg VanPatten of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), told The Voice that weather this bad is “unprecedented” in this part of the North Coast. Over the past 25 years, he’s been accustomed to the occasional one- or two-day snowstorm, where people get stuck at high elevations because they took their kids sledding at an inopportune moment — not emergencies stretching longer than a week, with residents needing medical rescue or evacuation because they’ve run out of supplies at home.
“If anybody with the ability to not get themselves stranded, or to exhaust all of their living supplies, is thinking that, ‘Hey, I could just call the Sheriff’s Office at a moment’s notice, and they’re going to be able to come here and rescue me within minutes or a couple of hours,’ that potentially won’t be the case,” he said.
High-pressure evacuations and welfare checks have been underway for several days, VanPatten shared. On Friday in Laytonville, one woman and her daughter had been driving to check on a family member, but got stuck in the car at least eight miles up Spy Rock Road. Searchers from MCSO finally were able to reach the woman Monday afternoon. She said her daughter had left the area with her boyfriend; MCSO believed the couple could be in a nearby abandoned house and were continuing to search for them.
Meanwhile, VanPatten said, searchers in a SnoCat had to be rescued themselves after the vehicle’s track was damaged. They were stranded in an estimated eight feet of snow.
“I haven’t seen it like this in the time I’ve lived in Mendocino County, which is 50 years,” 3rd District Supervisor John Haschak told The Voice.
He said he asked Howard Dashiell, director of the Department of Transportation, if the DOT could plow the driveway of a senior resident experiencing medical issues. Dashiell said his staff was already working overtime and contracting out to other companies for plowing services just to try and clear public roads.
“A perfect storm”
“I think it caught a lot of people off guard,” Jayma Shields, director of Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center, said of the high snow accumulation.
For her, things had mostly calmed down by Monday; but Feb. 23-25 was a frightening period, when Highway 101 closed for days and northbound travelers to Humboldt County were stranded in Laytonville. Shields received a late-night call from a retired fire chief that Thursday, who asked if she could open Healthy Start for people to warm up.
“We’re used to thinking on our feet in providing resources to the community,” she explained. But, she added, “I had in no way anticipated that we would have guests here for 36 hours.”
After letting people in, Shields repeatedly called Mendocino County to find out if Healthy Start (normally a daytime resource center for residents and families) would be named an emergency shelter in the storm. That designation would free up resources; a trained disaster response team could open a trailer of emergency supplies placed on the property by the county, giving them resources to shelter the more than 20 people who’d poured into Healthy Start. But those on the other end refused, saying Highway 101 would open within hours. Though it was feet away, Shields wasn’t authorized to open the emergency supplies without their go-ahead. Instead, locals gave cots, sleeping bags, and blankets to make Healthy Start hospitable for the night.
“The question all of us received from county officials was: `Why did you open your doors?’” she said. “That question kind of struck a nerve with me because why shouldn’t we open our doors? … Shouldn’t we protect people from these harsh elements and sleeping in their cars on the side of the highway?”
The next morning, she was given permission to open the trailer. It had a combination lock; the county staff person on the other end was at home without reliable Internet access, unable to get information she’d normally have in the office. None of the combinations she offered Shields worked.
Shields said the disaster was “a perfect storm,” and a wake-up call: “If we want something done in Laytonville, we do it ourselves.” She’s created an Amazon wish list for supplies, so that Healthy Start has its own shelter resources “in the event that we need to pull this off again.”
Planning without electricity or cell service
In Leggett, 50-year resident Melissa Rosenthal drew a similar conclusion. Having just sold the grocery store she operated for decades, she canceled softball practice Monday and spent the day making calls to 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde and staff from the county’s division of Prevention, Recovery, Resiliency, and Mitigation (PRRM), to plan for the next storms and beyond.
“It’s really scary what’s going on up in the mountains right now,” she said. “Apparently, I need to make some noise.”
Rosenthal’s calls drop often because cell service is spotty, and the power’s out. Landlines have been inoperable since January. But she has a list of goals: she wants a permanent commercial generator for Leggett Valley School, which has a commercial kitchen and enough space for people to shelter there in a disaster (This time around, school closed for more than a week due to the power outages). She wants community emergency response team (CERT) training for locals, so that they can act when outside services can’t reach them. She also wants to represent the interests of residents from Spy Rock and Bell Springs roads in nearby Laytonville.
“I’m going to dedicate my time to getting the resources we need here,” she said.
This move is in line with the tight-knit nature of Rosenthal’s community, something neighbors attest to.
“We call it ‘the fire department and friends,’ because we all try to come running or be supportive in our own way to our fire department,” fellow Leggett resident Berry said. “Because we just wouldn’t make it without them.”
Residents in northern Mendocino County are also gearing up for more storms, with additional snow on the way and the potential for warm rain at week’s end. An 80-year-old neighbor told Rosenthal’s husband that he’d never seen snowpack like this in Leggett before; she fears flooding could be on the way.
“I truly think we’re going to see something historic in that runoff,” she said. But that’s also why she’s working so hard to get better services in place: “I never complain without getting involved.”
The Mendocino Voice will continue to provide storm updates on our homepage.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.