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San Diego assesses the impacts of Hilary

 August 21, 2023 at 3:55 PM PDT

S1: Welcome In San Diego , It's Jade Hindmon. Tropical Storm Hillary is moving on. We'll talk about the impact left behind and what all the rainfall means going into the fire season. Plus here , how prepared the region is for inclement weather in the future. This is Midday edition connecting our communities through conversation. San Diego is recovering from the impacts of Tropical Storm Hillary , which hit the county yesterday , bringing record rainfall for the month of August. High winds and flooding in some areas. Some minor power outages were reported , too. And on top of all that , many southern Californians felt a 5.1 magnitude earthquake centered near Ojai. Here to give us the latest on the storm is Alex Tardy. He is warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego County. Welcome back to Midday Edition , Alex.

S2: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

S1: You know , so it's unusual to have an earthquake and a tropical storm hit on the same day.

S2: But that said , Tropical Cyclone Hillary delivered the rain that was expected 2 to 3in in the urban areas , all the major cities , 2 to 3in of rain. We even had wind yesterday evening. Winds were gusting 40mph from Coronado to Oceanside. And but the areas that really got hit hard , the mountains and deserts and those were the areas we were concerned about. And that was all the way from Ocotillo to Palm Springs , but really all the way through the Mojave Desert yesterday afternoon and evening up to Las Vegas , way too much rain. They had a year's worth of rain in parts of the desert with 3 to 6in of water coming down. Wow.

S1: Wow. You know , I just heard you refer to it as Tropical Cyclone Hillary. I've heard a lot of different terms being used to describe this weather system.

S2: So starting last week when Hillary first formed and then rapidly within a day and a half , became a Category four hurricane. That's the level of the wind speeds inside the eye when it's over , really warm tropical water. What gets confusing is then you hear that and it's like , wow , that's coming here. Oh , that's. That's scary. So. A tropical cyclone just covers all stages of the hurricane. So whether it's weakening or strengthening , whether it's a tropical depression , whether it's a tropical storm or hurricane , all those are just meteorological measurements of the center of the storm and they're important for the wind speeds. But the rain , the moisture that affected us , that's already developed and it doesn't matter how much the storm weakens or strengthens , we get all that rain and all that water. So officially , it came through as a tropical storm through San Diego County , Riverside County. So that just means wind speeds were between 40 and 70mph sustained in the center of the storm. So it's a technicality with it. I call it tropical cyclone because it covers all different stages of the storm. Mm.

S1: Mm. All right.

S2: That said , our mountain areas , we got to watch closely today. There there will be some pop up thunderstorms. But for most areas , including our deserts , we've seen the worst of it. We set records , like you mentioned , most of the rain was within 12 to 18 hours. We had a lot of places with 3 or 4in of rain. Even on the coast , there were places with three inches of rain. But in our deserts and mountains where all that flooding occurred , the rock slides , the mudflows , the strongest winds were in the deserts and mountains , of course. But I think we're out of the woods right now. The cyclone is way up in Nevada and continuing to weaken , but it made a big footprint on southern central California , including the Las Vegas area. Hmm.

S3: Hmm.


S2: You know , normally in August , we don't get any rain except for maybe a pop up thunderstorm. So there's a small possibility that we could see some movement of land , you know , some slides , some rock slides. We saw that yesterday. The photos , like on Interstate eight , were quite scary with the large boulders. But after you get this much rain , even if it's wintertime , there's always some concern that , you know , water will be flowing underneath and you may get some slides. We're still looking at , you know , more river flooding , Coachella Valley , Mojave Desert to our north. But for us , I think the main concern , you know , would be like the 78 Highway 79 I-8 that the some of those boulders and rocks that that received that 3 to 7in of rain may be loose.

S1: And parts of San Diego County actually saw tornado warnings to especially around Alpine and Descanso did any touchdown.

S2: I did not get any confirmation it was with , believe it or not , the remnant eyewall of Tropical Cyclone Hillary around 3 to 4:00 in the afternoon when that moved through San Diego County. I did get one other report that there was the funnel cloud , which means it's trying to form into a tornado , but it doesn't quite get there. It doesn't connect with the ground. So that was the main confirmation I got. And then I also talked to some people that did surfing and the surf was really rough. So you had opposing strong north winds with a big South swell coming up. But they did say they found some good surf off of Coronado. So what happens is some of the South facing beaches feel Hillary as she was coming up but our coast was beat up you know with with the surf the heavy rain. And I'm sure we saw some erosion along some of our cliffs and beaches , some.

S1: You know , San Diego and this area , we don't typically see tornadoes.

S2: If you're lucky , you get 30 minute notice. Even in the center of the United States. You might be told the day before that there's a potential for tornadoes. The thing with tropical cyclones , they are known for these small spin up tornadoes that cause local wind damage. And what happens is , if we did get a tornado or we do get a tornado and a tropical cyclone , it's pouring rain. Usually you can't see it. And it really comes up really quick. And it might already be windy at the time. So tornadoes that are associated with tropical systems are a lot different and even less predictable with advance notice.


S2: We're going to deal with a lot of moisture. So it was a sticky , muggy night. But we'll have good weather to clean up , even though we didn't have major damage in the San Diego area with the 40 mile per hour winds that were recorded in many places , even at the airport. There's a lot of branches and trees around that are damaged and maybe hanging branches and leaves and pine needles. The water moved a lot of things around. So we'll have a couple nice days in the rest of the week as we slowly lose all this moisture that's over us right now.

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hyndman. I'm speaking with meteorologist Alex Tardy about Tropical Storm Hillary.

S2: So typically when we see unusual rains late in the summer , it really can help us in the fall in terms of reducing and sometimes eliminating our fall fire season. While this rain is significant and I mean. Two , three inches of rain in August is just unheard of. The rain in our mountains was double that. I still think we're going to have a fire season and so we'll still have a concern with a lot of the the fine fuels , the smaller fuels , because when we enter into Santa Ana season , it never fails. We have extremely hot days , dry conditions. It's like putting your clothes in your dryer. They're soaking wet , right ? When you take them out of the washer , you put them in the dryer. They're bone dry. If it works right , the Santa Ana can do that , too , to our fuel. So while this is beneficial and this bias , a lot of time , a few weeks when we get into October , November , if we don't have any more rain from now to then , I think there still will be a fire season. Maybe not as severe , but still grass brush will still be at risk.

S1: And you know , we had a wet winter this past year. There's been talk of El Nino hitting San Diego this winter.

S2: It was remarkable. We have places in San Diego County that received 60in of rain like Palomar Mountain , and then they received five inches yesterday. So you got to add that to it. We got coastal communities like San Marcos and Carlsbad that have had 25in of rain and they picked up three inches yesterday. So really wet year. El Nino is already here. It's down in the equator. It's building and strengthening. It's looking like it's going to be a moderate to strong El Nino. Now , that said. That typically changes our jet stream in December , January , February , sometimes all the way through March and April. But I don't think we know where the jet stream is going to line up. Last year , it spent most of its time with 13 atmospheric rivers across southern California. It's hard to say at this point. We know that El Nino will influence the jet stream that brings us winter storms. But where those storms line up , they could end up lining up all over northern California and we only get grazed by them. Or they could be pointed at us like last winter. It's difficult to say El Ninos are not quite what we used to think they were. If you remember back in 2016 , that's the strongest El Nino on record in the ocean as you measure the sea surface temperatures and how they differ from normal , Strongest one. We were below average in San Diego with rainfall and the drought continued at that time in 2016. So El Nino is an important factor in in our weather , but it doesn't determine if we're unusually wet or not in every case. Hmm.

S3: Hmm.

S1: Speaking of unusually warm water temperatures , I mean , do you see any connection to climate change with these weather patterns we've had. With.

S3: With.

S2: El Nino ? Not really. El Nino is doing its thing. We had three years of La Nina , including last year , which is the cold phase. Now we're in the El Nino warm face. So Ocean's really good at sloshing water back and forth and relieving heat. And that's what the El Nino phenomenon is all about , or the La Nina , which is the opposite. Now , outside of that area in the equator , yeah , there's some really warm water that just won't go away. Western northern Gulf of Alaska off the Pacific Northwest , really warm water warmer than it should be. Marine heat waves is what we call them , but they're not going away. And I think they're largely attributed to the heat over land , not just this year. Palm Springs broke a record for the warmest July , but not this just this year. The past decade or so , that warm water is absorbed , you know , zipping the heat from the land. If we look at the heat wave right now in the center of the United States , they broke records. It was over 100 over many areas of the Midwest yesterday. That heat dome is actually what brought Hillary to us , the circulation around that , because it's so massive. So I do think there's a connection to the overall global warming , to the intensity , magnitude and impacts that some of these events have unfolded and brought to us. Yeah. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.


S2: It's it's like throwing darts literally beyond ten days on a on a dartboard. You just know that with more energy , more heat in the atmosphere , these events are a little more extreme , maybe even more frequent , but certainly more extreme. Sometimes that's cold , sometimes that's warm , sometimes that's dry and sometimes that's wet. Like yesterday.

S1: Yeah , I'd imagine that makes predicting the weather a little more challenging to , you know , we sometimes get immune to these terms like storm of the century.

S2: Uh , you know , I don't know exactly what happened in 1939 , but there is some documentation. So for a tropical system , that is it. Hillary is the storm of , of of the century. It doesn't mean it was worse than , you know , our biggest atmospheric rivers like in 2019 , 2017 or 2010 or even when you go back to like 1993. But. For tropical meteorology. It ranks right up there. And I think some of our precipitation records for the month of August are going to show that whether it's Palm Springs , San Diego , population , Riverside or our mountains , you know , to have that much rain. And in August , when we typically don't see almost any rain on a given year is remarkable. So that puts it puts it way up there. But it's a separate category because it's tropical. Probably a little unfair to compare it directly to some of our major winter storms or certainly not comparable to some of our major Santa Ana winds or our heat waves.

S1: All right. Well , I know you are headed to Palm Springs. Good luck out there. I understand that the water has some people cut off from much of California , so be safe. I have been speaking with Alex Tardy , warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego County. Alex , thank you so much.

S2: Thank you.

S1: How do you feel about our changing weather ? Give us a call at (619) 452-0228. Leave a message or you can email us at midday at Coming up , the conversation continues with Kpbs environment reporter Eric Anderson.

S4: This is the kind of thing that San Diego does regularly. They activate these emergency services regularly , and they did it for this one. It just so happened that what they activated it for was , you know , a pretty rare event , which was a tropical storm coming into the area.

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. Welcome back to Midday Edition. I'm Jade hindman. Today we are talking about the impact tropical storm Hillary had in our region and the Baja peninsula. Kpbs environment reporter Eric Anderson looked into how well San Diegans prepared and the impact left behind. Eric , thanks for being here today.

S4: My pleasure.

S1: So you reported on the potential impact on Imperial Beach and the South Bay this past weekend.

S4: What I noticed was that they prepared much the same way that they would if there was a big wildfire in the region , some other large natural emergency occurring. The county emergency center activated law enforcement , firefighting officials , county officials , local officials all got together with the National Weather Service to kind of give residents the information that they might need ahead of time. But again , it was it was a I got the sense , the feel from this that this was the kind of thing that San Diego does regularly. They activate these emergency services regularly , and they did it for this one. It just so happened that what they activated it for was the , you know , a pretty rare event , which was a tropical storm coming into the area.

S1: And , you know , Imperial Beach has had a lot of problems with coastal flooding and sewage.

S4: And the reason for that is pretty simple. It's because when you have storms , all that water rushes off the land , it picks up pollutants , it picks up any sewage that may be there and and it rushes it out to sea. So the water is is presumed to be pretty contaminated for at least 72 hours. The complicating factor for Imperial Beach is that they have had this ongoing cross-border sewage situation this summer. There have been regular flows down the Tijuana River Valley and there have been sewage flows coming up from south of Tijuana that have been brought up by the ocean , that have caused , you know , positive tests for for sewage in the in the ocean water and prompted officials to to close the beaches in Imperial Valley and sometimes as far north is as Coronado. So that's an ongoing situation that's going to be in effect. And so you don't want to jump into the water as soon as that 72 hours , you know , safety storm warning expires. Wow.

S1: Wow.

S4: You know , it was coming down pretty good yesterday afternoon in in Imperial Beach. And there was a lot of flow and the ocean was all churned up and a lot of big waves. And there was some wind in the area as well. And the sewage flows aren't going to stop just because the storm left. They were there before the storm happened and they're going to continue to be there after the storm happens. So it's something to monitor. It's something to be aware of. Water contact , probably not a good idea in Imperial Beach until they fix some of the issues related to these cross-border flows.


S4: It carries other contaminants that are harmful to people's health. You can get very sick if you're in the ocean that's contaminated with sewage flows. And and these can be serious illnesses. They can be chronic illnesses if you repeatedly go back into the water. So I think there are some really good health reasons not to be in contact with the ocean when we know that there is sewage out there.

S1: And just in terms of of how people prepared for this , you know , I imagine this storm came as a surprise. You know , this is the the only the second tropical storm to hit San Diego in a century.

S4: There's no question about that. It's just not something that happens very regularly. But I'm sure you noticed this as well. There was plenty of warning a week out , Hey , this is coming. This could be happening. This is what might mean. And there was a lot of public discourse about that. And I think people kind of responded to that message. Now , there were people that I ran into yesterday. I was down in Imperial Beach near Palm Avenue , right there at the coastline. There were people that I ran into yesterday that went there specifically to see they wanted to they wanted to see what was going on. They wanted to experience this this rare event. And there were other people that I ran across that were like , yeah , whatever. It's just a little rainy day. No big deal. But the thing you have to remember , this is really , really a rare event. I talked a number of times to Alex Tardy about this , that , you know , the typical rainfall in San Diego during the month of August is a 100th of an inch , which is a trace. That's the average over time. It almost never rains in August. And to get this kind of a drenching really makes it rare.

S1: And , you know , we did experience some heavy winter rains earlier this year.

S4: Any time that you experience something more often , the better prepare you're going to be for it the next time that it rolls around. So yeah , the fact that we had a really wet winter this year where we had regular storms almost every week , we had these big atmospheric river storms coming through the region. I think that that kind of let people know what to expect when we get this this kind of rain. One thing about this storm that might have been a little different from some of those winter storms this earlier this year was that it was a little bit windier than you might expect. Tropical storm , 40 mile an hour sustained winds at that point. So that might have been one of the differentiating factors. But in terms of the water that came in , certainly the more people that experience , the more that people experience it , the more they'll be prepared.

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman speaking with Kpbs environment reporter Erik Anderson about Tropical Storm Hillary and its impact on San Diego. And Eric , Mayor Todd Gloria talked about the city of San Diego's preparations for the storm in a press conference last Friday.

S4: Like I said , I got the sense that this was something that the county that was right in the county's wheelhouse. It's something that they had done for wildfires. It's something they had done for previous winter storm. So they kind of knew the drill. It was it was very practiced yesterday. I was at the emergency , the county emergency center. And , you know , we we heard from Supervisor Chair Nora Vargas. We heard from Alex Tardy. There was an official there from San Diego Gas and Electric. There were fire officials there , police officials , sheriffs officials , all of the local public safety officials that that this situation sort of touched in one way or another. They were there , you know , asking people to be prepared , asking people to be wary , asking them to stay home if they can. And it seemed very much like it was in routine. So if you were looking for a reason not to be confident in the in the county's response , probably not going to find it there. It seemed like they were on top of what was happening.

S1: San Diego Gas and Electric also monitored the situation and had crews at the ready in case of power outages. This is what Alex Welling , a communications manager for SGA , told Kpbs.

S5: I am showing about 409 impacted meters. Um , some of those are related to the Tropical Storm Hillary that we just all experienced. But at the end of the day , I think our infrastructure held up pretty well. And and I want to give a major shout out to our professionals who are out in the field all last night restoring power. And all through the day yesterday , I believe our average restoration time was about one hour. So they were out there. They were working hard around the clock to make sure the customers had power.


S4: They knew that this storm was coming. So they put their crews on alert. They had they checked to make sure that all of their repair crews , their trucks were working , that they had the tools that they needed if they had to go out and deal with an outage and they were ready to go , it didn't seem. From the coverage that I saw yesterday that they were overwhelmed by by the demand for service from them. And so it seemed like their their preparation was very much in line with what they were hoping.

S1: You know , we just heard from Alex Tardy , who you mentioned earlier. He's from the National Weather Service. But I also wanted to get your take here. This was the first time San Diego's ever received a tropical storm warning.

S4: I mean , let's be clear about that , too. Back in the 1800s , about 160 years or so ago , there was a hurricane that did hit San Diego. So it's not out of the realm of possibility. But what happened with this storm is that this storm formed in the tropical Pacific over water that was unusually warm for this time of year. It was warmer than it typically is. And so that storm began and gain strength very quickly. And the other thing that was in play was that there were a couple of other systems , storm systems. There was a storm system off the coast of California in the Central Pacific , and there was a heat wave over the central part of the United States that kind of created this alley for the storm to track straight up through San Diego. There is a chance , because of climate warming , that these kinds of conditions can line up again. So doesn't mean that there's going to be another tropical storm moving through San Diego. No , it doesn't. But does it mean that the chances of that happening are greater now than they were ten , 15 or 20 years ago ? Yeah , it probably means that. So climate change is having an impact. It doesn't mean we're going to be overrun by tropical storms or hurricanes in the near future. But but the chances of those happening certainly have increased a little bit.

S1: All right. I've been speaking with Kpbs environment reporter Eric Anderson. As always , Eric , thanks so much for joining us.

S3: My pleasure.

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A sign in Mission Valley warns that an area is flooded. San Diego, Calif. Aug. 20, 2023.
Mike Damron
A sign in Mission Valley warns that an area is flooded. San Diego, Calif. Aug. 20, 2023.

San Diego is recovering from the impacts of Tropical Storm Hilary, which brought rare August rainfall, wind, and some flooding to the region on Sunday.


Alex Tardy, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego County

Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News