Supervisor Rowe Releases Committee Report On Blizzard Response

Neither Caltrans nor the Highway Patrol performed adequately or competently in response to the intense blizzard that left the mountain communities snowed in for three weeks at the end of February and the first half of March, according to a critique compiled by an ad hoc committee formed by Supervisor Dawn Rowe.
What is now referred to as the Blizzard of ’23 manifested with heavy snowfall on February 22, which continued without respite until March 2, during which time more than 100 inches of snow fell on various spots in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains in back-to-back-to-back storms, icing major roads and leaving them impassable.
Conditions were at their worst within the internal communities of Crestline, Lake Gregory, Blue Jay, Lake Arrowhead, Cedarpines Park, Cedar Glen, Valley of Enchantment, Arrowbear, Sugarloaf, Twin Peaks, the county district of Big Bear and the incorporated city of Big Bear Lake, with cars buried in snow to the point that even when snowplows did reach where they were, often those cars would be damaged and rendered undrivable after being hit by the snowplows. The sheer weight of the falling snow began causing damage to natural gas lines, resulting in fires and explosions. That weight proved too much for many roofs. Ones that were flat in many cases collapsed. Even some roofs that were slanted were not immune from damage, and many developed water leaks, a complicating factor in an environment where the temperature in some areas might peak in the low 40s by day and become subfreezing at night. More than 15,000 people found themselves stranded near the mountain top in the San Bernardino Mountains on the east and in Mt. Baldy and Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains on the west with dwindling or no food, medicine and other supplies while residents of those areas who had sojourned down the mountain to their day jobs found themselves unable to return home for, in some cases, nearly a week.
While Mt. Baldy lies within the county’s Second District, overseen by Supervisor Jesse Armendarez, and Wrightwood falls within the First District, which comes under the responsibility of Supervisor Paul Cook, by far the greatest degree of devastation as a result of the major weather event took place in the Third District, the bailiwick of Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who is at present the chairwoman of the board of supervisors. Rowe assembled eight residents/entrepreneurs of the San Bernardino Mountain communities who had experienced the storm firsthand to, in Rowe’s words, “collect honest feedback on the county’s storm response” and provide “unfiltered and constructive feedback on the government’s response so the issues faced during the 2023 winter storm can be addressed moving forward.”
Known as the Third District Storm Response Committee, it consisted of mountain residents Olivia Borges, Laura Dyberg and Steve Keefe; Keri-Leigh Henderson, the chairwoman of the GreyBack Disaster Preparedness Group; Dr. Bill Mellinger, the pastor at Crestline First Baptist Church; Brenda Meyer, a broker with Cozy Cabins Realty; James Miller, who was designated the representative of the Big Bear Valley community; and Steve Valentine, a realtor and public relations consultant.
Rowe was appointed to the Third District supervisorial post in December 2018. Her supervisorial office was thrown into something of a disarray in October 2021 when Matt Knox, who had served as her chief of staff, departed from that position to become a contract American Rescue Plan Act program officer for San Bernardino County. Knox was replaced by Claire Cozad, who had previously served as Rowe’s policy advisor. Rowe, Knox and Cozad had in large measure acclimated themselves to politics under Supervisor Cook when previously Cook had been a member of the California Assembly and then a congressman. All three worked on Cook’s campaigns and, as a result of political patronage, had been rewarded with political positions on his Assembly and U.S. Congressional staffs. Following Knox’s departure and replacement by Cozad, Rowe found herself and her office to be more and more dependent upon County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez
At the Tuesday, March 14, 2023 Board of Supervisors meeting, County Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez aired for the board and the public a video pertaining to the storm which encapsulated the county’s effort to respond to it.
Thereafter, Rowe, as the board chairwoman, stated, “I commend and appreciate everyone on the county’s team for their hard work in responding to this natural disaster. There are many who have been working around the clock in very difficult conditions. However, we clearly have people in the community who feel that the county’s response fell short. I have concerns that the county could have been more effective in some key areas. I think we have to ask questions in four key areas as we move forward. What did we do right? What can we do better? What is the institutional knowledge that we’ve learned? How do we ensure that we are prepared for the future? Mr. CEO, I’d like to direct you to lead a comprehensive examination of how the county responded to this crisis and how to respond to emergencies in general and to report back to the board and the public, no later than six months if that’s doable from your perspective, preferably sooner, the findings of a detailed and innovative plan moving forward.”
The criticism of the county’s emergency response agencies – in particular the sheriff’s department and the county fire department – inherent in Rowe’s statement “the county could have been more effective in some key areas” was, perhaps, something she might have been better advised to have kept to herself, given the lofty status reserved for the sheriff, who is considered to be beyond reproach in San Bernardino County.
The realization that she might do well to leaven that implied criticism of the sheriff and the sheriff’s department appears to have made its way into the Third District Storm Response Committee Report, which was put together throughout much of April, after the weather in the San Bernardino Mountains had cleared, and released, rather quietly, on May 10.
The committee report goes easy on virtually everyone within the San Bernardino County governmental structure Rowe is best to stay on the good side of. There is nothing laid out that is so much as vaguely critical of the sheriff’s department. Similarly, the county fire department comes across in the narrative as having admirably risen to the occasion when the storm hit. Hernandez, at whose desk the buck relating to anything to do with the county stops, is likewise not mentioned. To the extent that there is an acknowledgement that any of the county’s functionaries might not have performed at a level required of them by virtue of their level of responsibility and job descriptions, that recognition extends only to the county’s office of emergency services. That criticism is expressed, however, in only the most generic of terms, without mentioning the name of the department’s director.
The most pointed negative assessment, insofar as it can be characterized as critical, is reserved for two key entities outside the authority of the county, those being the California Department of Transportation, known by its acronym Caltrans, and the California Highway Patrol.
It appears that the language of the report was in general put together by Rowe with assistance from Valentine, a public relations consultant skilled at maintaining positive relationships with as many varying and even conflicting interests within the context of trying circumstances that put those interests at odds with one another, and Miller, who was or perhaps still is one of Rowe’s field representatives in the Third District office.
In the report’s preamble, an effort is made to soften whatever blows are to be delivered in the narrative lest the reader be sympathetic toward governmental officials – particularly those employed by the state rather than the county – in specific or general, as well as to justify or even apologize for the relatively bland or sedate nature of the critique that is offered.
“While the opinions expressed in this report may not accurately depict what happened during the snowstorm response, they may illustrate how mountain residents perceived the response,” it states.
To the extent that corporate entities fell short in what they should have done, the report noted, “Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) needed better communication regarding buried gas meters.”
Early in the storm, the weight of falling snow crushed gas lines and meters, resulting in some explosions and fires.
The report noted, “Equipment owned by utility companies could not get into areas with downed powerlines because the roads needed to be cleared. This caused a delayed response in some areas that were without power. Verizon had previously installed communications towers to help with emergency communications, but some people still couldn’t get through to emergency medical services during this storm. After two weeks some areas were still without phone service. There was no communication through landline and cell phone or internet in impacted areas.”
According to the report, as far as officialdom’s reaction to the storm, there were “things that went wrong, things that went well, and missed opportunities.”
The report states, “Early on into the storm, the snow was allowed to accumulate too much, which shifted the snow removal response into a reactive versus proactive approach. Snowplows could have passed more frequently early on to avoid the accumulation of snow. The level of snow that accumulated made normal plows and heavy equipment insufficient in some areas. Most of the plows only pushed the snow and the snow had to be lifted at that point which was difficult. It was difficult for plow operators to see roadways and driveways, which resulted in the creation of large berms on private property.
“In some areas county [snowplow] operators started plowing for about 48-72 hours after the storm began and then they stopped so resources could be diverted to help Southern California Edison (SCE) access downed power lines,” the report continues. “SCE needs to have their own equipment for future winter storms to avoid pulling from county resources.”
The report states, “The county should have found a way to get more equipment staged and ready to deploy in advance so that there was no delay in getting additional equipment up the mountain. County public works should also procure more snowblowers across the mountain communities. Due to the volume of snow and limited county equipment, extra plows and operators were brought in from across the state to assist with plowing efforts.
“As a result, there were many inexperienced plow drivers who did not know the mountain communities or how to plow snow especially at this level,” the report continues. “There is now road damage due to the extra plows and operators that were brought in. Restoration work on roads is now needed in the aftermath of the storm. Under normal winter storm conditions, residents can typically expect to be plowed out overnight and they had an understanding of the order in which roads are plowed. In most cases it took days for residents to have their roads made passable let alone cleared. In addition, the heavy equipment operators from outside the area were unfamiliar with the protocol that locals were accustomed to, which caused further frustrations. Residents had no indication of when their road would be plowed. Additionally, inexperienced operators could not determine which homes were occupied by signs such as a shoveled driveway. Residents who had spent hours clearing their driveways to gain access once the road was plowed ended up being obstructed by large berms on their property. Non-County plow drivers need to be strictly directed by the incident management team.”
The committee found fault with the county’s snow removal map, which was supposed to give residents an idea of which roads had been cleared.
“The map was only updated once a day instead of providing live information,” the report states. “It also only focused on what had been completed and did not show any indication of the areas that were scheduled for plowing. Residents wanted to know when they would be helped, but it only told them they were left out. The map was also inaccurate at times. It would show a specific road as completed, however those on that road knew it was not. The map was more helpful for those down the mountain than for those stuck at home in some cases.”
The report found that “For those residents on a non-maintained road, it was extremely confusing to figure out what resources were available to them. It was not necessarily clear what that means for them as individuals on a non-county road and what to expect from it.”
The report was less than charitable with regard to Caltrans and the Highway Patrol.
“During this storm event, Caltrans equipment was diverted and this resulted in yet another reactive versus proactive approach to snow plowing,” according to the report. “It also forced the isolation of the mountain communities since the highways were inoperable. In the past Caltrans has pulled equipment from the mountains to clear the Cajon Pass, but they did not have to return to this accumulation of snow.“
The report further stated that “After the highways were cleared, Caltrans tried to reopen the highways too soon.”
According to the report, “There was little communication between Caltrans and the county. Once the highways were reopened it allowed some residents to travel down the mountain to go purchase vital goods such as food and medications for their families or neighbors who were still stuck. Residents would go down and were unable to return home. They would sit at the base of the mountain for hours with no clear information on when they could return home. Services like Google maps did not show that it was open to residents only, so the residents really relied on Facebook to communicate with others who were able to get back up the mountain. People want more information and reasonings behind closures or blockages.”
The report emphasized, “The relationship needs to be fixed with Caltrans and California Highway Patrol (CHP). There is no public input. They do not proactively reach out to the public. There were also evident lag times in their communications. For example, Caltrans would announce the reopening of highways to residents. However, CHP did not let residents back up the mountains for hours.”
Moreover, the report states, “There was also no clear explanation provided to residents from either Caltrans or CHP as to why residents could not go back home” and “there was a delay in CHP approving the closures despite the clear need based on road and snow conditions. Once travel was being re-authorized, CHP restricted traffic going up. CHP needed a better system to control people going up with food and medicine.”
The committee accused Caltrans District 8 of “an overall lack of response for winter storms. Caltrans District 8 has no protocol in place on how to prepare in advance for pending major storm events. They do not stage equipment nor do they have a pre-approved list of private grading contractors that they can hire if they need help.”
The committee was equally critical of the Highway Patrol’s operations in the county and particularly in the mountain communities.
“The CHP station on the mountain does not have a captain,” the report noted. “Residents felt that having a lieutenant who was not from the community made it difficult for CHP to understand the needs of the community in this storm event. A separate state-initiated audit needs to be done of Caltrans District 8 and the local CHP office to address their lack of response for the constituents they serve.”
The committee, while not absolutely avoiding negative observations about the county and its various subagencies, was generally reluctant to make pointedly critical assessments of the performance or sweeping censure of individual county employees or whole departments. What faultfinding the report engaged in with regard to the county was measured in tone and frequently offset with praise or recognition of positive traction in a setting of overwhelming challenge.
“After a few days,” the report notes, “snow removal response eventually shifted to a more organized plan where residents could begin to visibly see results. It was helpful that the county was able to bring in extra plows, equipment, and operators despite the other set of issues it brought. The county should have a bigger force of equipment and operators staged in preparation for a storm event of this size, especially when advanced warning is given. The county should focus more on first pass access on roads. Instead of making a single road passable and then widening the road, they should focus on making all roads passable and then pivot into widening efforts.”
With reference to a key failure – the breakdown of the communications system that prevented isolated and vulnerable residents in distress from reaching the dispatch center for the sheriff’s department, the Highway Patrol, the fire department, emergency medical service providers and the county’s public works division because of dropped calls or no connections whatsoever – the committee was unwilling to engage in a brutally honest censure of the county.
“The county’s emergency call center (909-387-3911) has great intentions but created a lot of confusion for residents,” the report gingerly states. “In some instances, residents were not getting through and did not get responses. Fire departments were telling people not to call the hotline and to just call 911. The 911 system was inundated as a result. In some instances, it took one day for residents to get a response to 911 calls.”
The sole entity within the county hierarchy Rowe was willing to give Borges, Dyberg, Keefe, Henderson, Mellinger, Meyer, Miller and Valentine license to openly criticize was the office of emergency services, which is headed by Assistant County Executive Officer Daniel Muñoz. Assiduously, however, the report avoids mentioning Muñoz by name.
“The county’s office of emergency services (OES) dropped the ball,” the report states. “There was a significant amount of confusion about who was in charge. The response from county OES was not as organized as it has been for past events such as wildfires or earthquakes. Typically, OES sets up a command center and controls all information about disaster events.
“Mountain Area Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) was not activated through county OES,” the report continues. “They are trained and equipped to help communities during natural disasters. CERT cannot be activated without OES saying so and because that call was not made, they were unable to provide vital assistance to communities.”
The report outlined further office of emergency services shortcomings.
“There was an insufficient supply of diesel fuel on the mountain to support the amount of equipment being used,” the report states.
Specific areas within the mountain communities were without any assistance whatsoever, according to the report.
“Running Springs was totally ignored, and they received little county help,” the report states. “The county should have communicated with the Running Springs Fire Department to see what resources they needed and make sure they were okay. The Red Cross has only one person who coordinates services throughout the county. This created massive barriers in getting resources to communities such as a Red Cross trailer full of evacuation center supplies that was unable to be moved from a fire station to an evacuation site.”
According to the report, “There was no plan to receive and deliver supplies to residents, especially those who could not physically get out of their homes. There was too much reliance on people to get out of their homes to make it to community points of delivery. Some residents were not aware that OES was helping with medication delivery through the emergency call center. Residents did not know who to go to and had to figure it out themselves. The county’s free firewood program was mismanaged. County employees at a community point of delivery were initially limiting the amount of food people could take. So, someone who walked miles to the site in the rough conditions and wanted to take food back to elderly neighbors was denied by county personnel. They were told there was only one box per person, which was frustrating for those trying to help their families and neighbors. There was so much conflict between county personnel and the residents in need that the sheriff’s department had to come in to resolve disputes.”
While Rowe was willing to have the office of emergency services’ performance be subjected to obloquy in the report, she ensured that Muñoz’s name was not mentioned.
Muñoz began with the county in the 1990s, working within the department of human services, colloquially referred to as the welfare office, first as an eligibility worker and then later as an analyst. He was subsequently shuffled into a series of other positions within the county department of human services, at one point gravitating to that department’s emergency management division.
Muñoz would subsequently transfer from the department of human services to the office of emergency services, where after a short time as an emergency service officer he was promoted into one of the two supervising emergency service officer positions.
Muñoz was a close personal friend of Leonard Hernandez, who had made a mercurial rise from that of county librarian, a position he had been hired into in 2011, to head of the county museum in 2013, that of the county deputy executive officer in 2015, chief county operating officer in 2017 and in 2020, county chief executive officer, the county’s top staff official.
In 2019 Muñoz and Hernandez began to engineer a coup d’ etat, one aimed at removing Michael Antonucci, the former Upland Fire Chief, who since August 2012 had been serving as the county’s senior emergency services officer overseeing the San Bernardino County of Emergency Services, which was chartered to undertake preparations for and response to catastrophic or near-catastrophic events throughout the 20,105-square mile county.
Despite Antonucci’s extensive and in-depth experience in fire department and related emergency operations and Muñoz’s slender résumé in that regard, Hernandez succeeded in elevating Muñoz to the position of deputy executive officer, a position from which he served as the overseer/top administrator of ICEMA, the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency, and the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, thereby forcing Antonucci out.
The county’s comprehensive emergency management program for weather related issues is contained within what is referred to as the FAST Force Plan. Upon learning that a major weather-related event is in the offing, the county office of emergency services director/county assistant chief executive officer, in this case Muñoz, being armed with information from the National Weather Service, is to convene a conference call with the county chief executive officer, sheriff, fire chief, county public works director, Caltrans regional representative, California Office of Emergency Services representative, local CHP commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives to size up the anticipated circumstance and begin formulating a planned action of response and then, 24 hours later, reconvene to make a tentative outline of the response, whereupon the county chief executive officer applies for authorization from the board of supervisors to begin acquiring equipment, supplies, manpower etc. to initiate the response. An emergency meeting of the board of supervisors is then supposed to be convened, probably within 24 hours, to give the county chief executive officer that spending authorization.
The National Weather Service gave an indication on February 15 that a major weather front was going to converge on Southern California beginning as early as February 21.
The first of the succession of events that entailed this year’s mountain blizzard started on February 22. The board of supervisors did not conduct an emergency meeting relating to the blizzard until March 1. It appears that neither Muñoz nor San Bernardino County Chief of Administration Pamela Williams to whom Muñoz is directly answerable on the county’s organizational chart nor Hernandez, who oversees both Williams and Muñoz, initiated a conference call on February 16, though under the county’s emergency management protocol such an effort to bring the county’s and region’s primary emergency response managers together for a communication session should have been made.
It appears that Muñoz and Hernandez temporized in holding the by-phone conference until February 28, a full six days after the storm first set down on the San Bernardino Mountains.
The board of supervisors did not conduct an emergency meeting relating to the blizzard until March 1. The media were not alerted to the emergency meeting pertaining to the blizzard that took place on March 1 at 2:45 p.m. until after 1:30 p.m. on March 1.
At that meeting, the board of supervisors confirmed Hernandez’s proclamation of a local emergency, expediting the provision of county resources, services and expenditures to render assistance as needed and ensure the health and welfare of the residents of the impacted areas during the emergency. That included endeavoring to give the public and first responders access to necessary infrastructure such as grocery stores, gas stations, utilities and public infrastructure.
The Third District Storm Response Committee Report makes no mention of the delay in holding the conference call, nor Muñoz’s role nor Hernandez’s role in that delay.
An impromptu effort by Good Samaritans down the hill was under way by February 24 and in short order accumulated several tons of foodstuffs, propane and medicine to resupply those trapped in place. They coordinated with the California Disaster Aerial Response Team, known by its acronym CalDART, to have those supplies, including food, baby formula, propane canisters and blankets, flown to Mountains Community Hospital in Lake Arrowhead or to ad hoc distribution centers in the midst of those places hardest hit by the storm in well-maintained helicopters flown by licensed pilots who are skilled, trained and experienced in making emergency landings in forbidding terrain and circumstances.
CalDART managed to dispatch four flights with those supplies to the mountains. On March 3, however, the sheriff’s department, citing safety concerns, refused to allow CalDART to participate further, leaving a growing store of foodstuffs and other critical supplies on the grounds of San Bernardino Community Hospital.
The Third District Storm Response Committee Report makes no mention of the sheriff’s department’s unilateral discontinuation of the CalDART relief effort.
According to the report, “The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District and local fire departments did a great job with what they could. Supervisor Rowe held an online community town hall on March 2nd, which was great.”
The report provides the caveat that “These comments do not represent the opinions of Supervisor Dawn Rowe or any official San Bernardino County agency. The content of this report has been provided to Supervisor Rowe for her review and is also being made available to outside agencies and the general public.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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