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Death toll climbs as San Bernardino Mountains residents ask for federal aid

Joe Simons, his wife and two daughters have lived in Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains for almost five years. They moved there to be closer to family — he and his wife wanted their daughters to grow up with grandma nearby.

Simons said when the National Weather Service (NWS) sent out the area's first ever blizzard warning just over two weeks ago, he and his family prepared for the worst and hunkered down.

"I had a generator, I had five days worth of gas to power the entire house, I had three weeks of food, I had medication — I did everything I could do," he said.

Simons family from Lake Arrowhead have been hunkering down in after a first ever blizzard hit the San Bernardino Mountains. Homes have been buried in nearly 10 feet of snow and residents have been snowed in, many without a way to get food, medicines and pet food. They are pleading for help that has been slow and crippled by the snow.
Courtesy of Joe Simons
The Simons family from Lake Arrowhead are seen in this undated photo. They have been hunkering down in after a first ever blizzard hit the San Bernardino Mountains.

And even with all the preparation, Simons' mother lost her home to a fire. He said she's devastated and lost everything.

Simons said he's angry that government officials didn’t pre-plan, prepare the most vulnerable, help or even communicate effectively.

"We ended up basically just having to fend for ourselves in a lot of ways. Our government, local county government, state government and the federal government just failed us," he said. "There's homes still to this day that are inaccessible. There's people who are trapped still and getting dug out — elderly people."

KPBS spoke with Simons Thursday, a day before President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for 34 counties in California, including San Bernardino.

As of Thursday afternoon, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department said it had been called out for 13 death investigations since the storm. Eight people had been found dead in their homes.


While the Sheriff's Department said "the circumstances observed at the scenes did not present as weather-related," Simons believes many of the elderly victims would still be alive if not for the storm.

"To me that's the measuring stick of whether or not they died from the storm or not. If you die in your home, it's just sad," he said.

He said there are message boards on social media for local people where they can communicate with each other and they ask for help. He said those get tougher and tougher to read because you can only help those around you.

"Somebody posted something asking for help saying, 'Hey, we only have half a jar of peanut butter left for our family and we're stuck and trapped, can somebody get over here?'" Simons said. "I look out my door and there's six feet of snow all the way down the street, and there's no way I could go anywhere, and it's just heartbreaking."

A new storm was forecast to arrive in the mountains Friday, bringing up to a quarter inch of rain. NWS warned the rain will add weight to the snowpack, and could further impact structures and cause more rooftops to collapse.

There is also a flood watch and wind advisory in effect for the San Bernardino Mountains.