Michelle Hake’s sister had been snowed in for days, alone in her Big Bear home. Her family said it wasn’t clear just how urgent her medical needs had become during last month’s record-setting snowstorms and the treacherous days that followed.
She “needed medical attention in the midst of the storm, and we could not get that to her,” Hake said. Her family called for an emergency wellness check Monday.
“We were too late,” she said.
Deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department found Hake’s sister dead just after 9 a.m., agency spokesperson Mara Rodriguez said. A cause of death has not been determined, but Rodriguez said there were no signs of trauma or suspicious circumstances.
Hake, who requested that her adult sister not be identified, declined to expound on her sister’s medical history or what might have led to her death. But she said she had no doubt that her sister would have gotten the care she needed had the storms not trapped her inside.
“We were trying to get someone to go check on her,” Hake said. “There was literally no access to get to her; she lives alone. And for so many that are [stuck] in their homes, that is their story.”
Rodriguez said at least two other people in San Bernardino’s mountain communities had been found dead through official welfare checks since Feb. 23, when the historic snowstorms started. One was found dead in Big Bear and the other in Valley of Enchantment, a neighborhood in Crestline.
The agency, however, has also responded to nine more deaths since the storms, Rodriguez said — a total of 12.
“So far, we can only confirm [one], a traffic accident, as weather-related,” Rodriguez said. “The preliminary information in the other deaths does not indicate they are weather-related, but those investigations are ongoing.”
She declined to release further details about the other deaths, citing ongoing investigations.
But many mountain residents who spoke to The Times, some of whom found neighbors or friends dead inside their homes, said they had no doubt the massive storms and treacherous aftermath — the blocked roads, the lack of heat, cellphone service and food — probably contributed, if not caused, the casualties.
“I don’t think people know how dire it is right now,” Hake said. “We are literally trying to find people like my sister, people who are in their homes, and their life is hanging in the balance.”
At a Big Bear Lake City Council meeting Wednesday night, Laura Johnson told council members during public comments that a friend who lived in the area had died during the storms because their home could not be accessed by a dialysis provider.
“They would not allow the driver to come up and pick up my friend who needed dialysis three days out of the week,” Johnson said. “And he passed.”
Many worry that this is just the beginning as people continue to dig out.
“The level of loss and just the magnitude of the storm … I just cannot convey enough just how devastating” it has been, Hake said.
In Crestline’s Skyland community, Rhea-Frances Tetley said her 93-year-old neighbor, Elinor “Dolly” Avenatti, was found dead Monday.
Avenatti may have been elderly, Tetley said, but she was lively and a fixture in their community.
“She was a joy for the neighborhood,” Tetley said. “She was feisty and independent … and generous to a fault.”
Avenatti was active in senior citizens groups, baked for neighbors, walked daily before the storm and collected bottles and cans to make donations to animal rights groups, Tetley said.
She worried that a week without power, stuck in her cold house alone behind mounds of snow, might have been what killed Avenatti. Tetley said neighbors had been delivering food and checking in on the woman for about a week, but early this week — as electricity finally returned to their street — the nonagenarian didn’t answer her door. On Monday, neighbors went in and found her dead.
“She didn’t have heat,” Tetley said. “I think that she froze to death in the house.”
Tetley said that soon after Avenatti’s body was found, their street was finally plowed, because emergency officials needed to respond to the death.
Liberty Guerrero, a Crestline resident, said three people she knew had died in the last week, both elderly.
She said the nearby Cedarpines Park community “is a big elderly community. They live in the boonies, and nobody’s gone there yet. Crestline itself has a lot of elderly people. They’re going to find more.”
For nearly two weeks, many living in mountain communities from Crestline to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear have been trapped under massive amounts of snow — more than 100 inches in some places — while officials have struggled to clear roadways and provide relief after back-to-back storms pummeled the region with blizzard conditions and relentless snowfall. Residents were without power for days, roofs and decks collapsed, gas leaks spurred storm-related fires, and entire neighborhoods struggled to get supplies of food and gas.
As of Wednesday morning, about 95% of San Bernardino County roads had been cleared, officials said, but they noted that many of those roadways were still only wide enough to accommodate single-lane traffic. Almost 30 miles of roads still have not been plowed.
Hake and her family were without power in their Crestline home for at least five days, she said, eventually relocating to a friend’s house to wait for the power to be restored and roads to clear. She said that for days, there was no way to get to Big Bear to check on her sister, or even to her parents’ home in Lake Arrowhead.
“It feels like we are living in an alternate reality up here,” Hake said. As president of the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, she is helping coordinate supply drop-offs and facilitate wellness checks across the mountain community — even before her sister was found dead.
She said during one of those checks, a neighbor found an elderly man inside his home, where “for the last five days he had been rationing a frozen tamale.”
“Right now, we’re still focused on getting to people in need and getting everybody accounted [for],” Hake said.
Aaron Creighton, who lives in Cedarpines Park, said an older neighbor who lived across from him was just reported dead in his home Wednesday morning. The man had been sick for a while, Creighton said, but he feared the stress of the storm accelerated his decline.
“There’s the stuff that does you harm right away and it’s obvious, and then there’s the stress that comes with this kind of stuff,” Creighton said, who is the owner and publisher of the community’s hyper-local newspaper, the Alpine Mountaineer. “It’s incredibly stressful to not be able to get out of the house.”
He said the neighbor, whom he declined to identify, did not live alone, but he wasn’t sure how often his housemates checked on the man and said no one in the house had dug out their driveway. The fire department spent at least 30 minutes digging through snow to access the man’s house to transport his body, Creighton said.
“It’s not the end of it,” Creighton said. “We have a lot of people that are completely and utterly cut off and stranded right now.”
Megan Vasquez, who started a food distribution center for Valley of Enchantment, said she’d heard of at least two people who died during the storms — and agreed with Creighton’s dismal prediction.
“I do feel like there is going to be a large body count when it’s all said and done,” Vasquez said. “There are many elderly people who are kind of reclusive in their homes with nothing, and there will be more people who have passed.”
Kristy Baltezore found one of her Crestline neighbors dead after she went to check on her. The woman, whom Baltezore didn’t want to identify, hadn’t been ill and wasn’t disabled.
“This is not good,” Baltezore said. “We still have half our community we haven’t made contact with.”
Rodriguez, the San Bernardino sheriff’s spokesperson, said the number of official welfare checks in recent days had decreased significantly. She said authorities were making house calls the same day a welfare check was requested.
“We continue to respond to calls for service for our mountain residents,” Rodriguez said in a statement.
If anyone needs help checking on a neighbor or loved one, officials said to call 911 or the county’s Storm Response Call Center at (909) 387-3911.
Times staff writer Christian Martinez contributed to this report.
Grace Toohey, Summer Lin