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I-Team investigation ‘Half a Year After Hilary’ reveals continued struggles and lessons learned

An I-Team investigation reveals the daily struggles some Cathedral City residents still say they face six months after Tropical Storm Hilary and their reactions to the city’s storm response.  

“So at this point, we're still living out of bins in our bedrooms and in our bathroom,” said Beatrice Toledo whose Cathedral City home was flooded by a mudflow the night Hilary hit the desert hard.

It’s been six months now since the August 20th storm drenched the Coachella Valley and sent a devastating flood of water and mud into the Cathedral City Horizon Road neighborhood.  

Cathedral City City Councilmember Rita Lamb said, “Here we actually had a disaster that was calamitous, and brought destruction and loss.” 

Despite the city's efforts to help, residents say they’re still frustrated that more hasn't been done to help them rebuild their lives.

News Channel 3's Jeff Stahl spoke to city leaders who point to their actions to rescue people and help with recovery efforts they accomplished during and immediately after what some say was a 1,000-year storm.

Toledo says she and her family are now back in their Horizon Road home somewhat, but also using a recreation vehicle parked in the front yard as many home repairs remain to be completed.

“What we need from the city is financial compensation. And accountability,” Toledo said.

Toledo remains disappointed saying the city should have been better prepared, warned neighbors of the dangerous mudflow ahead of time, and helped to pay for their homes’ costly damage.  

“We need them to own what they didn't do, and the wrong things that they did," Toledo said.

She points to a storm fundraiser for residents where the city gave $10,630 to several aid groups including Team Rubicon, Salvation Army, World Central Kitchen, the Red Cross, and Find Food Bank.

Jeff Stahl asked Toledo who that money should have gone to.

"The residents," Toledo replied. "That's what it was raised for. You know, even if it's to reimburse us,” she added.

Jeff Stahl asked City Councilmember Rita Lamb about the donation. Lamb said, “I am very confident about the allocations for the financing for volunteerism.” 

But Lamb also says seeing those residents and businesses suffer as they did cannot be underestimated. 

"I cannot underestimate the emotional toll that this particular event had on people,” Lamb said.

Cathedral City’s disaster response is well documented in emails, texts, and other communications the I-Team requested and examined.

Some reported cars stuck in water as the storm advanced, homes flooding, a map showing the Horizon neighborhood flooding, and an online Zoom meeting where city leaders complained it was difficult to get a word in. 

City leaders also shared a disturbing image of an elderly senior lying in a bed surrounded by muddy water, prompting a rescue mission to evacuate 14 seniors from a flood-ravaged care home.

Lamb and other city leaders defend their work saying that they saved lives, evacuated people timely and without injury, and quickly cleared mud-filled roads.

The City's Fire Chief Michael Contreras said, “People who had no other way out. We were able to get them out in a timely fashion, which is never fast enough, but we were able to get them out, and nobody got injured.”

See John White's In-Depth report on the Power of Water from Tropical Storm Hilary here.

Contreras said the storm has led to changes, namely a new push for disaster training his young staff. 

“How do we shorten that?" Contreras added, "That experience curve to where they get that experience and that's through training, giving them off-site? We just put in for a grant for our to get a Swift water rescue team here in Cathedral City.”

Contreras says the city has begun updating its Emergency Operations Plan and Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, expanding them for the scale of potential disasters that could be experienced by residents. 

The City Manager, Charles McClendon, also tells News Channel 3 that the city wants to streamline future disaster response plans to allow healthy volunteers to come into disaster areas to help people without risking their safety.

The city has hired contractors to haul 175,000 cubic yards of mud and dirt to clear roadsides, and the city is busy repairing other storm damage at 6 million dollars to date. More road surface repairs remain to be completed. The work has strained the city’s finances. 

City Manager Charles McClendon said, "But we couldn't do that. And then the other things that we were planning to do in the budget, so the council did have to make some decisions back in November about delaying some other projects."

McClendon hopes to see most if not all of the city’s costs reimbursed by the state and federal government. 

But the bills keep coming in for the Toledo family as federal aid was not even applied for in the state's request for financial help after Hilary. 

Still, Toledo is optimistic her home will be almost back to normal again within two months, but the emotional scars remain.  

Article Topic Follows: Investigative

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Jeff Stahl

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