Hurricane Hilary live updates: California residents warned to brace for ‘rare and dangerous’ storm

UniqueThis 89 August 19, 2023

Among the areas forecast to be hardest hit by Hilary as the storm's core reaches Southern California tomorrow is the Santa Rosa mountains, which form the eastern slopes of the Coachella Valley.

Forecasters say as much as 10 inches of rain could fall in a 24-hour stretch, or as much as two years' rainfall, likely a historic event if it comes to pass, according to an analysis by NBC News' Climate & Weather Unit.

The mountain range runs mainly through Riverside and San Diego counties just west of desert communities such as Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Coachella.

It enjoys state and federal conservation under the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and California's Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy.

Southern California mountains from the U.S.-Mexico border to the San Bernardino Mountains were under a flood watch through Monday, the National Weather Service said. The watch area also includes the Coachella Valley and those desert cities.

The watch means low-lying areas, including creeks and rivers, could flood, the weather service said. Flash flooding was also a possibility.

Strange waves from Hurricane Hilary reached the Southern California coast late Saturday morning, reported Kevin Wallis, director of forecasting at wave prediction business Surfline.

Sets were seen moving north, parallel to the coast in Orange County and likely completely bypassed San Diego County, Wallis said in a series of updates at Surfline's site.

The late-morning display was surprising, he indicated, as Hilary-generated swell wasn't supposed to arrive until hours later. The swell is likely to completely bypass San Diego County.

One place that did get rare waves, some moving north and east, was the Sea of Cortez, normally a surfing-free body of water along Baja California Sur's and Baja California's east coast, Wallis reported.

Waves as high as 8 feet were predicted for the Southern California coast through Monday. The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement Friday that boaters and beachgoers alike should stay off the water, out of the waves, and even away from the waterline.

It noted that water rescue capabilities will be diminished amid the storm's heavy rains and strong winds.

A California emergency management official warned that there would be power outages as a result of the storm.

“There will be power outages. Make no mistake, there will be power outages across Southern California,” said Nancy Ward, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Ahead of the storm's impact, Ward described Hilary as “one of the most devastating storms that we’ve had hit California in more than a decade.”

National Weather Service forecasters have downgraded Hilary to a Category 2 hurricane with estimated sustained winds at a maximum of 110 mph Saturday afternoon.

Those wind speeds place Hilary at the top of Category 2 and just outside Category 3 strength. NWS meteorologist Philip Gonsalves confirmed Hilary had been officially downgraded, and he noted the storm had gone from Category 4 to 3 earlier in the day.

Rain and wind ahead of the storm was already affecting parts of Imperial County, east of San Diego County, and Riverside County, north of Imperial County, he said.

Those areas could end up bearing the brunt of the storm's rain, he said.

The latest update from the National Hurricane Center continued to warn: "Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding" was "likely."

Hilary's location was about 285 miles south-southeast of Punta Eugenia, Mexico, the center said.

For more information on where to fill up sandbags, visit the Los Angeles Fire Department website.

Throughout the Hurricane Hilary press conference Saturday, senior California officials discussed the severe weather mechanisms in place including pre-positioning high-water vehicles for water rescue teams, preemptively closing some roads, and engaging emergency medical facilities.

They also repeatedly stressed that local residents do their part in preparing for the storm and heeding safety warnings.

Transportation Department Director Tony Tavares recommended residents limit non-essential travel until after the peak of the storm.

“If you must travel and you encounter water flowing across the roadways, do not attempt to drive through it. It takes just a very limited amount of water to wash a vehicle away,” Tavares said.

“Many of our roadways are going to be barricaded with signs,” said Ceto Ortiz, assistant commissioner for the California Highway Patrol. “They were put there for a reason for you to remain safe. Please be smart and do the right thing and don't drive around those barricades.”  

Nancy Ward, director of the California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, shared guidance for residents including “signing up for alerts, ensuring that you have a go bag ready to evacuate should you be asked, making sure that you are in touch with family and friends, elderly neighbors or people with access and functional needs.”

“It is not too late to prepare,” Kim Johnson, director of the California Department of Social Services. “We are absolutely stronger together.”

For disaster assistance, residents can visit websites www.ready.gov and the Spanish language companion www.listo.gov. A template for a personal emergency plan can also be found at www.chhs.ca.gov.

Hilary is expected to move northeastward inland into Souther California as a tropical storm, bringing with it the potential for dangerous flooding and high winds.

"Later this weekend Sunday into Monday, we are expecting a rare and dangerous rainfall event with significant flash flooding, river flooding, mudslides, and debris flows as well as the potential for wind damage from strong tropical storm force winds,” said Courtney Carpenter, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Isolated tornadoes are also possible as well as life-threatening surf and rip conditions along the beaches of Southern California, Carpenter said.

"The worst impacts are expected on the east side of the inland mountains and into the desert Southwest,” she said.

An evacuation advisory was issued for Santa Catalina Island, the tourist destination off the Southern California coast.

Avalon, the main city of Santa Catalina, has closed its bay to all incoming boaters in advance of Hurricane Hilary.

“Catalina Island visitors, residents that are unable to sustain without electrical power, and those with medical, access and functional needs, are strongly encouraged to leave the island today, Saturday, August 19th,” city officials said.

Essential services including transportation and shelter will be offered at the Catalina Express Ferry Terminal.

Employees load a power generator as people buy emergency supplies at Costco
David Swanson / AFP via Getty Images
Customers buy emergency supplies at Costco
David Swanson / AFP via Getty Images

Extreme weather is in the forecast this weekend for regions of the United States outside Hurricane Hilary’s path. 

Heat warnings blanketed the central Midwest, with excessive warnings issued from states spanning Minnesota to Texas. 

Air quality alerts were issued for many communities in the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle, as smoke from fires in British Columbia and in Washington state traveled west toward western Washington. Parts of Oregon, Idaho and Montana also faced poor air quality. 

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, as dangerous fire conditions continued to challenge firefighters. 

The town of Medical Lake, Washington — which is home to nearly 5,000 people — was evacuated Friday afternoon as a wildfire barreled into town, killing at least one person.

Weather experts said Hurricane Hilary’s indirect influence on other regions could intensify fire weather in the Pacific Northwest and also contribute to the heat dome in the midwest. 


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced pre-emptive measures to keep the power and water systems running safely during Hurricane Hilary.

“When the power goes out, LADWP’s first priority is responding to reports of downed wires and making conditions safe for the public and our crews,” it said.

Tree-clearing crews will be alert to fallen trees, which are “the most frequent cause of power outages during heavy rain and wind storms,” according to the department. Flying debris and fallen trees can disrupt power lines or other energy infrastructure, resulting in outages. The agency urged residents to not touch any dangling or downed power lines.

Additional field crews are also staffed to assist the Electric Trouble team with any power outages.

On the water front, the Emergency Response Staff is coordinating with reservoir and geology experts to monitor the in-basin reservoirs, which have the capacity to contain increased runoff if flooding occurs, LADWP said.

President Joe Biden is closely monitoring Hurricane Hilary and will be continue to be briefed throughout the day, according to a White House official.

Hurricane Hilary increased its speed and shifted its course slightly eastward, according to a post from the National Weather Service in San Diego. The storm's effects will be most pronounced in Southern California from Sunday morning to Sunday evening.

"Preparations for flooding impacts should be completed as soon as possible, as heavy rainfall will begin well in advance of center," said the National Hurricane Center's Eastern Pacific office.

Dangerous, perhaps locally catastrophic, flooding is expected through early Monday in the Southwestern U.S.

The hurricane is expected to make landfall along the west central coast of the Baja California peninsula Saturday night or early Sunday morning. Then, the system will advance into Southern California as a tropical storm.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday offered support to the people of California as residents in southern parts of the Golden State braced for flooding.

"Hurricane Hilary is approaching Southern California and is projected to make landfall as a tropical storm," DeSantis, who's running for the GOP presidential nomination, wrote in a post to X, formerly known as Twitter. "In Florida, we know how challenging storms can be and have significant experience responding in their wake — we stand ready to help the people of California in any way we can."

As two governors on opposite ends of the political spectrum, DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have frequently clashed over guns, abortion rights, education and immigration. In June, Newsom told NBC News that he planned to launch an investigation into the groups of migrants flown to California, which were orchestrated by DeSantis’ administration.

Earlier this month, DeSantis accepted an invitation from Newsom — who has for months sought to challenge DeSantis face-to-face — to participate in a debate hosted by Fox News host Sean Hannity. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was headed to Southern California to monitor and assess any fallout from Hurricane Hilary, which has prompted the state's first-ever tropical storm warning.

“We should never underestimate the power of Mother Nature. California is coordinating with federal and local governments to support communities as they prepare for this unprecedented storm. Heed warnings from local authorities, be ready and stay informed,” Newsom said.

The state is coordinating with community organizations to protect unhoused people, Newsom said. In addition, the state is readying resources, including the California National Guard, water rescue teams and various flood fighting tools.

The Category 4 storm is forecast to hit Southern California this weekend into early next week.

Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo activated 100 Nevada National Guard members in anticipation of Hurricane Hilary Friday night.

“These Guardsmen will be put in place to provide support to southern counties, which may be significantly impacted by flooding,” Lombardo said in a statement.

“As the state takes the necessary steps to prepare for flooding and severe weather, I strongly urge all Nevadans to do the same. By making a plan ahead of time, Nevadans can ensure that their families and loved ones remain safe amidst Hurricane Hilary.”

The governor's office shared severe weather guidance from local emergency officials.

Most of Nevada is under a flood watch from Saturday Aug. 19 at 11 a.m. through Tuesday Aug. 22 at 5 a.m., according to Lombardo.

Hilary is expected to produce 3 to 6 inches of rain, including maximum isolated totals of up to 10 inches, across portions of the Baja California peninsula through Sunday night, the National Weather Service said in a bulletin early Saturday.

Flash and urban flooding, locally catastrophic, is likely, especially in the northern portions of the peninsula.

Heavy rainfall in association with Hilary is expected across the Southwestern United States, peaking on Sunday, and possibly lasting through Monday. Three to 6 inches of rain, with isolated totals of up to 10 inches, is expected across portions of Southern California and southern Nevada.

Trees blow in the wind in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California State, Mexico
Winds pick up speed in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Hilary.Alfredo Estrella / AFP via Getty Images

Hurricane Hilary could produce up to 10 inches of rain in parts of Baja California through Sunday, the National Weather Service said in a bulletin early Saturday.

“Flash and urban flooding, locally catastrophic, will be likely, especially in the northern portions of the [Baja] peninsula,” the bulletin said.

Even 2 or 3 inches of rain in Southern California would be “unheard of for this time of year,” Kristen Corbosiero, a University of Albany atmospheric scientist who specializes in Pacific hurricanes, told The Associated Press.

“That’s a whole summer and fall amount of rain coming in probably six to 12 hours,” she said.

Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve have closed to keep people from becoming stranded amid flooding, the National Park Service said.

“Expect a full closure Saturday pending changes in this severe weather system,” the service said on its website.

It said that campgrounds would be closed, and backpackers would also be prohibited from entering Saturday through Tuesday.

Major League Baseball has rescheduled three Sunday games in California because of the forecast for Hurricane Hilary.

Each of the games — Arizona at San Diego, Tampa Bay at the Los Angeles Angels and Miami at the Los Angeles Dodgers — will now be played Saturday as part of split doubleheaders.

“I’m very grateful that they were proactive in the thought,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s certainly going to be an inconvenience for some people that had Sunday tickets, but to at least get ahead of it made sense to me.”

Angels manager Phil Nevin echoed his sentiments. “I’ve lived here 52 years, I’ve never heard something like this,” Nevin said. “Part of me is like, ‘Wow.’ Part of you is excited to see what goes on with these things, but I’ll be honest, the more I read about and hear about it, I get a little bit nervous, too.”

Image: TOPSHOT-MEXICO-WEATHER-HURRICANE-HILARY
Restaurant employees put up protective wood planks at a restaurant near the beach in Los Cabos resort in Mexico's Baja California.ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP - Getty Images

Naval ships and submarines based in the San Diego area will head to sea until the storm passes, the Navy said.

The commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet set “Sortie Condition Alpha” today and San Diego-based ships will get underway tomorrow, the Navy said in a statement.

“In order to ensure the safety of our Sailors and ships, we are taking all necessary measures to mitigate potential damage to infrastructure and Third Fleet vessels caused by the storm,” said Vice Adm. Michael Boyle, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet. “Safety remains our top priority, and putting all capable ships to sea makes it easier for us to manage the situation ashore,” he said.

Ships and submarines from Naval Base San Diego, Naval Base Coronado and Naval Base Point Loma will leave for the sea, the Navy said, and ships that stay will take precautions to avoid damage.

SpaceX delayed the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket from a base on California’s central coast until at least Monday. The company said conditions in the Pacific could make it difficult for a ship to recover the rocket booster.

While officials in California have been urging people to take Hilary seriously, Las Vegas and other parts of the Southwest also face possible flooding.

A likely scenario in Las Vegas is up to 2.5 inches of rain through Monday, according to the National Weather Service, but another scenario estimates 3 inches or more. The city is under a flood watch from 11 a.m. Sunday through 5 p.m. Monday, the service said.

Other parts of Nevada were considered to have a “moderate” flood risk from the storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo said Saturday he was activating 100 National Guard members in advance of the storm making landfall.