Flooding at Lake Hemet Campground long-term residential RV sites. Flooding inundated the campground on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, after massive rainfall and fast- moving water breached a protective berm.
Photo courtesy Mary Murray

Editor’s Note: Weather damage to Hill infrastructure, residences and businesses is an ongoing story the Town Crier will follow.

Nearly three weeks after heavy rains and snow damaged Hill infrastructure causing flooding and road closures, residents and businesses are struggling to regain footing in the aftermath.

Many are waiting – for cleanup assistance, repairs to property, road reopenings and a return to normal conditions. 

In this article we’ll review storm effects on full-time residents at Lake Hemet Campground, reduced small business traffic in Idyllwild attributed to road closures and how longer commutes are affecting propane distribution on the Hill. All who are affected are hoping that conditions will improve in March. Yet many are wary that forecasts of more rain and snow could further damage local infrastructure.

Damage and debris caused by flooding to an enclosed patio room connected to an RV home at Lake Hemet Campground.
Photo courtesy Mary Murray

Mary and Michael Murray, long-time permanent RV residents of Lake Hemet Campground, are waiting for cleanup assistance on their water- and mud-damaged property. They are worried that a breached berm or levee that allowed floodwaters to build on their premium rental space will again breach with new rains. 

The Murrays have lived year-round at the campground for seven years but have been coming to the campground for more than 40 years, even spending their honeymoon in the peace and seclusion of the lakefront site. They were unable to detach their fifth wheel and drive out of the rapidly escalating emergency on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, because of a fully enclosed and attached patio room. 

Other long-term residents were able to detach and drive out on that Thursday. Some, in their haste, did not properly close their sewage connections, causing, according to multiple residents, raw sewage to begin floating throughout flood-damaged sections of the campground.

Mary anxiously watched water rising to the doors of her parked pickup truck, and threatening her patio room and two adjacent sheds in which many valuables were stored. Michael had left for work at Crossroads 243 church at 6 that morning. 

Sometime late on Valentine’s Day morning, professional responders helped Mary evacuate to the campground clubhouse, where she and her husband would spend the night until flood waters began to recede. They were back in their 40-foot RV home the next day, Friday. Feb. 15. Power had been restored but the Murrays were unsure, with the sewage bubbling throughout the area, whether water was potable.

The issue now for the Murrays and other campground residents is the berm or levee that broke, causing rapidly moving flood waters to impact their residences. As of this writing, the berm has not been repaired. Mary indicated it had broken once before in 2013 under similar flood conditions but had been repaired. She believed it was repaired by Lake Hemet Municipal Water District crews. 

LHMWD owns the campground, lake and dam but, under a contract in 2011, California Parks now manages the campground. 

And therein lies the conundrum — who is responsible for repairing the breached berm and the damage to many RV residential sites — LHMWD or California Parks? And will the berm and campground be further damaged by coming rains? Calls to Kelly Lam, marketing director at California Parks, and Michael Gow, LHMWD general manager and chief engineer, were not returned prior to deadline. 

According to the Murrays, residents have been shoveling and cleaning up, with no apparent campground management plan for cleanup assistance. They are waiting for berm repair and help in restoring their premium site to its pre-flood condition. 

The Murrays love the campground and its natural beauty. “It’s our home,” said Mary. “We’re here because of the natural beauty.” But they have lost valuables in the flooding and are concerned that more flooding could be ahead. “I’ve thrown away so much of my stuff that was damaged,” she said. “What are we going to do?”

Also waiting for better conditions is Phyllis Brown, long-time owner of one of Idyllwild’s marquee businesses, the Prairie Dove boutique and women’s clothing shoppe. Brown has owned the well-established and successful business for 23 years but this string of calamities, topped by road closures of both highways 243 and 74, which drastically curtailed off-Hill visitor traffic, has so affected her business that she is considering relocating to another town. 

“My business is down 30 percent,” she noted. And had Brown not refinanced her home last fall, she would not have had the capital to sustain her business through this reduced tourism period. “January and February are traditionally slow business periods,” she said. “I’m just hoping that March, which typically begins my business season, will be better. I’m just going to work and try to be positive. We’ll just see.”

Brown noted that she is aware other local businesses have suffered greater business loss than she. “I think everybody is under financial stress,” said Brown. Like many, Brown said the severe weather and isolation have increased her feelings of vulnerability. 

Lastly, propane suppliers have been challenged by road closures (Highway 74 between Valle Vista and Mountain Center, and 243 at Round Robin Dive north of Pine Cove to 11.1 miles south of Banning at Skyland Ranch Road) in their efforts to supply the Hill. 

Andrew Kotyuk, CEO of SoCal Propane, was the first to return a call regarding the challenge his company is facing in servicing Hill customers. “Road closures have added two hours plus of travel time to Hill deliveries, as well as the extra cost of diesel fuel,” noted Kotyuk. “We’re running seven days a week in our office and in the field in trying to service our customers. 

“Our challenge is trying to service also service customers who own their own tanks. That’s hard. We want to service those customers but must first assist the customers who are regular and with us all the time.” 

SoCal has made major inroads in the Hill market through competitive pricing and local field management. Frank Jakubac, SoCal partner and field manager, is a Hill resident. For that reason, SoCal customers have said they feel comfortable having a local supply their propane needs.

Kotyuk said supplying the Hill has been a challenge because of the shut down of three or four refineries for planned maintenance. “No one anticipated the severity of this winter,” said Kotyuk. “Those refineries pumped for the season and then stored based on a normal winter’s needs. But this was not a normal year. There was much more demand with colder temperatures.” 

He noted that a 30-year levee in the San Jacinto area broke during the recent storms. “This winter’s precipitation has been greater than a 30-year storm for this area.

“These are the times that matter for customer service — times of emergencies. If you can’t be counted on when it matters the most, then what does it matter? Servicing our customers and being counted on is what our crews desire. We’re thankful we’re able to perform.”

Kotyuk noted his storage field in San Jacinto will open in 30 days. “We’re just waiting on Edison [Southern California Edison] to energize it.” That massive storage capability will continue to allow SoCal to price competitively.