By Drazen Jorgic
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Tropical storm Hilary lashed the Baja California peninsula with heavy rains on Sunday as it hurtled towards the U.S. Southwest, where forecasters warned it would trigger life-threatening and “catastrophic” flooding amid historically large rainfall.
One person died in Mexico amid reports of flash flooding in the peninsula, where some roads were swept away and images on social media showed raging torrents gushing down city streets that have been turned into rivers.
In the United States, heavy rains and fierce winds have already begun to cause chaos on southern California roads as people fled the storm and some officials ordered evacuations.
Many flights at San Diego and Los Angeles airports and sporting events in the area have been canceled, while officials warned residents to remain indoors and keep emergency supplies handy.
About 250 flights scheduled for Sunday at the San Diego International Airport have been canceled and another 382 on Monday, according to the FlightAware website.
Storm Hilary, which made landfall earlier in the day in the northern part of the Baja California peninsula, has been weakening over the last 48 hours. But it is still set to be the wettest storm ever to hit the U.S. Southwest, according to Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS).
“This is a dangerous storm,” said Taylor, who works for NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “It’s not just the rain totals but the intensity.”
Hilary is set to dump vast amounts of water on many parts of the U.S. Southwest that are more accustomed to dry conditions.
Areas such as Palm Springs, California, which typically gets around 4.6 inches of rain in an entire year, could receive 6-10 inches from this one storm. California’s Death Valley area, which receives only about 2.2 inches of rain per year, could receive 3-4 inches from this event.
Hilary was carrying top sustained winds of 60 mph (96 kph) and its center was forecast to barrel over the northern portion of the peninsula and then move across Southern California on Sunday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its latest advisory.
Storm surges – when the ocean is pushed inland – could produce coastal flooding in parts of Baja California and the storm was carrying heavy rain that could cause catastrophic flooding in some areas, the NHC added.
Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 cm), with isolated amounts of 10 inches, was expected across the northern Baja California peninsula as well as portions of Southern California and Southern Nevada, the Miami-based agency said in its latest advisory.
As of 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Hilary was about 115 miles (185 km) south-southeast of San Diego, California, the forecaster said. It was moving north-northwest at 23 mph (37 kph).
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass urged residents across the second-most populous U.S. city to stay home as the storm passes.
“Avoid unnecessary travel. If you don’t need to be on the road, please do not get in your car,” she said at a press conference on Sunday.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Kristin Crowley said the city has staffed additional fire engines and several swift-water teams in case flood rescues are needed. Urban search and rescue teams have also been deployed throughout the city along with helicopter teams to assist in rescues from the air.
Local officials in Arizona issued evacuation orders for parts of the Lake Mead National Park due to flooding risks, with the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office posting on Facebook to urge residents to “evacuate to higher elevations”.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also declared a local emergency on Sunday as heavy rains buffeted his city.
“I ask San Diegans to stay home and stay safe,” Gloria said on X, the social media platform.
It has been seven decades since the last tropical storm made landfall in California. In September 1939, the Long Beach tropical storm killed almost 100 people.
In Mexico, nearly 1,900 people have been evacuated to shelters in the Baja California peninsula, according to the country’s army.
Around the coastal town of Mulege, on the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula, one person died after his family was swept away while crossing a stream on Saturday. Phone lines and electricity were cut in several of the surrounding villages after lamp posts fell, the Mexican army added.
Mexico’s Navy also evacuated about 850 people from five islands in the path of Hilary, which was previously designated a Category 4 hurricane before it weakened.
Many businesses in the U.S. were also taking severe precautions.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Mexico CityAdditional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Bharat Govind Gautam in Bengaluru, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in ChicagoEditing by Frances Kerry, Matthew Lewis and Diane Craft)
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