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San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris stands on the departments newly acquired Sno-Cat at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris stands on the departments newly acquired Sno-Cat at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
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Capt. Craig Harris starts the engine. The enormous vehicle vibrates as it comes to life, the passenger compartment filled with new-car smell.

This isn’t a car or truck, but an enormous orange . The tracked vehicle recently acquired by the San Bernardino County sheriff’s Twin Peaks station is meant to help plug gaps in emergency response exposed by winter storms in spring 2023.

A year ago, on Feb. 25, 2023, a blizzard slammed into the San Bernardino Mountains. Over the next two weeks, up to 11 feet of snow fell on mountain communities. Residents were trapped in their homes, sometimes without adequate supplies of food, medicine and other staples. In some cases, the roofs of mobile homes threatened to cave in. The roof of the only grocery store in Crestline collapsed.

Officials were slow to respond at first. When they did, county communication with the public, elected officials and outside public agencies was inconsistent and sometimes confused. The public was told of efforts that weren’t happening and programs that didn’t exist. The county didn’t have enough equipment capable of handling a winter storm of this size. Volunteers wanting to help were turned away, as officials at first had no process in place to work with them during a disaster. Trapped in their homes, many mountain residents seethed with fury and frustration.

“Here at the (Twin Peaks) station, we couldn’t leave the station for four days,” Harris recalled. The snow was simply too deep for the equipment station personnel had at that time. “It was pretty evident that we needed a tracked vehicle, or a couple of them.”

Since last February, San Bernardino County has spent millions on new winter weather equipment. Twin Peaks got its new Sno-Cat — new car smell and all — earlier this month. The station also got equipment upgrades to allow previously owned off-road vehicles to work in deep snow.

Twelve months after the record-setting blizzard, officials say they’ve learned the hard lessons of the 2023 storms and are better prepared for next time.

  • San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris steps out of...

    San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris steps out of a razor with new over snow attachments at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris climbs into the...

    San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris climbs into the departments newly acquired Sno-Cat at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris drives a razor...

    San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris drives a razor with new over snow attachments at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris stands on the...

    San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris stands on the departments newly acquired Sno-Cat at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris climbs into the...

    San Bernardino County Sheriff Captain Craig Harris climbs into the departments newly acquired Sno-Cat at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. The department has recently received a new Sno-Cat and new over snow attachments for their existing razor and ATV so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility has recently...

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Twin Peaks facility has recently received a new Sno-Cat, right, and new over snow attachments for their existing razor, center, and ATV, far left, so they can access those in need during large snow storms such as those during the winter of 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Energency Operations Plans for many San Bernardino County cities sit...

    Energency Operations Plans for many San Bernardino County cities sit on a shelf in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, stands in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, stands in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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Chaos as blizzard hits

Twenty-seven miles away from the Twin Peaks station, in a screen-filled command center nestled among warehouses in Rialto, Crisanta Gonzalez is settling into her .

“My motto here is ‘out of chaos, comes opportunity,’ ” said Gonzalez, who’s been in the position since Jan. 16. “Any (emergency management) person would jump at this chance, to help bring a really spectacular program to the largest county in the United States.”

A picture of the chaos from the 2023 blizzard emerges from 3,580 pages of internal county emails obtained through a California Public Records Act request by the Southern California ɫ̳ Group, along with interviews with more than a dozen current and past county employees.

On Feb. 23, 2023, the National Weather Service’s San Diego office issued its first-ever blizzard warning.

“Travel will be VERY DIFFICULT TO IMPOSSIBLE due to the extremely heavy snow and extremely high winds expected,” the weather service wrote, emphasizing the danger with capital letters.

  • Michael Romero clears snow in front of his Crestline home,...

    Michael Romero clears snow in front of his Crestline home, where his three vehicles are buried under heavy snowfall on Friday, March 3, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • The Goodwin & Sons Market sign is buried in feet...

    The Goodwin & Sons Market sign is buried in feet of snow. The market parking lot serves as a site for a food giveaway for residents of Crestline on Friday, March 3, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Despite a collapsed roof, people stand in line for food...

    Despite a collapsed roof, people stand in line for food at Goodwin & Sons Market in Crestline on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A man walks across the intersection of Lake Drive and...

    A man walks across the intersection of Lake Drive and Lake Gregory Drive in Crestline on Friday, March 3, 2023. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The aftermath of winter storms is evident as buildings and...

    The aftermath of winter storms is evident as buildings and street signs are buried in several feet of snow in Crestline on Friday, March 3, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • A shopper walks past piles of snow in the upper...

    A shopper walks past piles of snow in the upper parking lot of Lake Arrowhead Village after record-breaking snow in recent weeks in the San Bernardino Mountains and Lake Arrowhead on Saturday, March 11, 2023. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Josefa Echeverria shovels snow from her front porch, buried in...

    Josefa Echeverria shovels snow from her front porch, buried in several feet of snow, after the recent snowstorms in Crestline on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Mountain resident Rainer Farfan, 41, of Crestline digs his Nissan...

    Mountain resident Rainer Farfan, 41, of Crestline digs his Nissan Altima out from under about 6-8 feet of snow on Crest Forest Drive after the resent storm in Crestline on Saturday, March 4, 2023. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • A totaled SUV is covered by snow along the neighborhood...

    A totaled SUV is covered by snow along the neighborhood streets of Crestline on Monday, March 6, 2023. (File photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, ɫ̳/SCNG)

  • Armando Chavez works to unbury a vehicle in Lake Arrowhead...

    Armando Chavez works to unbury a vehicle in Lake Arrowhead on Wednesday, Mar. 8, 2023. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Stephen Calleros begins to clear up to 6 feet of...

    Stephen Calleros begins to clear up to 6 feet of snow off the roof of Diane’s Saddleback Grill and Hotel in Lake Arrowhead on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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The blizzard hit the mountains on Feb. 25.

On Feb. 27, the county activated its Emergency Operations Center, two days after the blizzard arrived and four days after the weather service’s warning.

On March 1, Gov. Gavin ɫ̳om declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County and 12 other counties around the state battered by the storms. Snowplows and other resources that could normally be moved to San Bernardino County were needed elsewhere in California.

That same day, the roof of Goodwin’s Market, the only grocery store in the storm-battered community of Crestline, collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow. Michael Johnstone, the company’s vice president, emailed the county. He wasn’t asking for help for his store, but asking if the county could provide a tracked vehicle or snowplows to help Sandals Church deliver food to stranded residents in the mountains.

“With Goodwin’s roof collapse, I am concerned about those who are in their homes with no food and wanted to support this project as much as possible,” Johnstone wrote. “Let me know if there are any resources that you have to assist.”

Sandals wasn’t alone: The county received offers of help from across California and from out of state. But when the storm hit, the county didn’t have infrastructure in place to coordinate donations and volunteers during an emergency.

Confusion mounts

Mountain residents clogged phone lines, demanding help.

“I am aware that our constituents are contacting your (offices),” Claire Cozad, chief of staff for Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who represents the San Bernardino Mountains communities, wrote in a March 1 email to the chiefs of staff of the other county supervisors. “Our phone lines are completely filled and our staff is overwhelmed with calls.”

She asked other supervisors’ offices to direct callers to the county’s emergency hotline. Between Feb. 27 and March 29, 2023, the county’s winter weather hotline received 7,565 calls.

Mountain residents, frustrated and waiting for answers, took matters into their own hands and set up their own town halls. On March 2, Rowe forwarded the questions for a planned live-streamed Instagram town hall meeting to county staff.

Among the planned questions:

  • “When can residents expect a material increase in support from the county now that a state of emergency has been declared at both county and state levels?“
  • “Why wasn’t the county able to secure additional resources given that the storm was well-forecasted than usual?”
  • “Is the county planning to offer any resources to support small businesses affected by the storm?”

The moderator asking the questions, Crestline resident Graham Smith, now faces Rowe in the March 5, 2024 primary election. All three of Rowe’s challengers have criticized the county’s response to the blizzard.

Without a point person to communicate with elected officials or outside agencies, wires got crossed during the blizzard. As a result, the public was sometimes misinformed about what was happening.

In a March 7 email to Rowe, then-county CEO Leonard X. Hernandez wrote that he’d reach out to the office of state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, who had said during a radio interview that the county intended to plow all the roads in the mountains — something the county hadn’t promised. The county was now hearing from residents who wanted to be compensated for their snow removal costs. Later, county officials announced mountain residents would receive up to $500 to defray snow removal costs from private driveways, walkways and roads.

Experts pushed out

Part of the problem facing the county, according to current and past county employees, was Hernandez, who resigned from his position in August. During his time as CEO, Hernandez spoke publicly about prioritizing employees who fit into his workplace culture over those with expertise. According to some employees, Hernandez bullied long-term staff into leaving, leaving gaps in upper ranks of the county and inexperienced people sometimes in charge.

Former San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez sits during the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meeting in San Bernardino on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Former San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez sits during the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meeting in San Bernardino on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

“It was that whole ‘culture’ thing. I would tell him these are employees of more than 30 years, you can’t just make them separate, you can’t force them to retire,” said former human resources manager Deborah Caruso. “I worked in the public sector for over 30 years, and you just can’t do that. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

There were 11 different organizational charts for the San Bernardino County government published between June 2021 and June 2023, according to documents obtained by the Southern California ɫ̳ Group. Officials often received entirely different areas of responsibility months after the prior organizational shake-up.

During the coronavirus pandemic, oversight of the county’s Office of Emergency Services shifted from the Fire Protection District to the County Administrative Office. At the time of the 2023 storms, OES reported to then-Chief of Administration Pam Williams. But only a month before, in the county’s January 2023 organizational chart, Williams had instead been in charge of “special projects” and the “board agenda.” Her role expanded to oversight of OES a month later, according to a Feb. 4, 2023, email Hernandez sent to the Board of Supervisors informing them of the changes.

Hernandez resigned in August, taking a job for a substantial pay cut in Washington State earlier this month. Williams left the county in October. Neither she nor Hernandez responded to repeated requests for comment about county operations under Hernandez.

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, stands in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, stands in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency...

    Crisanta Gonzalez, the new San Bernardino County Director of Emergency Services, sits in the Emergency Operations Center in Rialto on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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‘This was not acceptable’

Officials have been candid about the failings of their response to the storm, in reports released by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in September and the County of San Bernardino in January.

In emergency management, “we work on lessons learned,” said Gonzalez, the person now tasked with righting the ship.

“Mistakes are going to be made. Things are going to happen,” Gonzalez added. “The important part is, what are we going to do about them? And I think that the county has responded aggressively. From the top down, from the supervisors, to (new county CEO Luther Snoke), to the sheriff, to the fire chief, they made a very strategic decision to make sure this doesn’t happen again. They made a very clear choice that this was not going to happen again, that this was not acceptable.”

Gonzalez worked for the city of Los Angeles for seven years, most recently as a division chief in its Emergency Management Department.

She’s now looking at a variety of ways to improve future disaster responses. She’s thinking about embedding representatives from the county’s Fire Protection District and National Weather Service within the Office of Emergency Services, potentially speeding up reaction time in emergencies. Gonzalez is also hoping to work with volunteer organizations that already serve as an unofficial support network in emergencies and that, she said, are often the first form of help residents see in a disaster. The county is also eager to improve its communication with all residents.

“As a county family, we are aggressively making sure this doesn’t happen again,” Gonzalez said.

Beyond winter weather emergencies, she’s currently concerned about making sure residents who live at the bottom of wildfire burn scars are aware of the dangers of flash floods.

“My kids live in this county. My grandkids will live in this county some day,” said Gonzalez. “My mind is always on different hazards. If it was my family (affected), what would I want to see in place?”

Moving forward

The Sheriff Department’s report on the storm response raised the idea that it might be time to return ultimate responsibility for emergency response to fire officials, rather than county administrators. Twin Peaks’ Harris agrees.

“The county’s Emergency Operations Center was at the top” during the storm, Harris said. “They had a bunch of good hearts, they went through a bunch of training, but it seemed like they hadn’t had a trial by fire yet.”

Gonzalez is diplomatic on the issue.

“I don’t think it matters where you put my particular group on an org chart,” she said. “Those relationships are never going to go away. Those bridges are never going to burn. We’re always going to be connected with our disaster responder partners. Regardless of what the issue is, it’ll always come together in a unified command as one family.”

Both Gonzalez and Harris agree that the county has made large strides since the storms of February and March a year ago.

“We’re quicker to respond and we’re certainly more prepared, equipment-wise,” Harris said, pointing to recent rainstorms that saw county officials quickly alerting residents of possible danger.

He and Gonzalez are optimistic about the future.

“Everybody learned from (the 2023 blizzard),” Harris said. “All agencies. The community learned. I think right now, there’s a new focus and mission for county OES to organize volunteers and organize supplies and organize the relief effort.”

And that’s just the beginning, according to Gonzalez.

“This is a rare opportunity: You get to build something to be the best of the best,” she said.

Staff writer Joe Nelson contributed to this story.

More on the 2023 winter storms

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