Activist speaks on worst California snowstorm in four decades

Aerial footage captured a plea for help in Southern California’s San Bernardino mountains on March 3.

Pawel Chmielewski is a retired engineer and a long-time progressive activist who lives in the San Bernardino mountains of California. He spoke with Struggle-La Lucha about the massive snowstorms that slammed the mountain range. The freak weather was caused by global warming and killed 13 people, destroyed 41 homes and damaged 550 others.

Struggle-La Lucha: When we first reached you by cellphone, it was breaking up so badly that the only thing I was able to get from the conversation was that you definitely couldn’t get out and that electricity was out. What was going on at that point?

Pawel Chmielewski: Yes, I had no internet and so I was relying on my cell phone’s network. But it was just cutting in and out so badly that it was almost useless. I also had no electricity. It was finally restored, but then there were blackouts up to a couple days ago. 

I have a generator that runs on natural gas and I had it hooked up so that it would come on if the electricity failed like the generators in commercial buildings do. But it was covered with about three feet of snow and couldn’t get enough air, so it didn’t work until I was finally able to get out of my house and dig it out.

SLL: How bad was the snow? How deep was it?

PC: I’ve never seen anything like it. My car was buried – you couldn’t see it. The snow was five feet deep in the first storm, but the drifts were sometimes 10 feet deep. A lot of people’s roofs caved in from the weight.

SLL: Another snowfall happened in the last few days. How is it now?

PC: With the first storm, no one could get out throughout the area. This latest snowfall is bad in places, but many can drive. I’m snowed in – like a lot of people – because the snowplows bury your driveway. It’s still pretty hard to get food but it’s not as perilous now.

SLL: Did people come around offering to get you out of there?

PC: Yes, and most people in my area did evacuate. Having a generator and food, I decided to stay. I was one of the few that did. There were some shelters in churches and other places. But it was hard for them to get to people. It’s not like they could just go evacuate everyone and it’s done – it took days just to get to some people. They were using helicopters to try to assess everything but then still had to get to them somehow, which could take a long time.

SLL: How long was it before you were able to go out and get food and other supplies?

PC: It was about 10 days total. For me personally it was not a problem. But a lot of people really did suffer without food. Because of health issues I’m a vegan and my diet is mostly from dry food that I normally keep on hand. I had enough to last. And I had enough of my medications too. But the food situation for others that couldn’t evacuate right away was pretty bad. 

Even for those who could drive, getting any place for food was far for most people. For instance, the store that’s closest to me is about five miles away and the weight of the snow collapsed its roof. Stores are scarce throughout the area, so it was a big problem for a lot of people. I don’t know if that contributed to the number of people who died. There were 13 deaths in the San Bernardino area.

SLL: From what I gather, the deaths were mostly attributed to lack of access for people who needed medical attention, maybe with lack of food being a cause in some cases, or vehicle accidents as people tried to drive out, and to heart attacks from trying to shovel snow. Did people come to check on you?

PC: Yes. I have to say, I thought the emergency response people tried their best. Not only in getting people evacuated, but also knocking on doors for welfare checks and helping in other ways. There were 800 people involved in trying to deal with the situation, including many prisoners who are usually firefighters when there are wildfires. I hope they get rewarded somehow for that. They helped a lot with the work of digging people out of the snow and in other ways. 

Even right now with this second snow, there was all the rain between the two snowstorms, so because of freezing and thawing, it’s hard to walk much less drive. I think it’s still hard for them to safely say that everyone is okay.

SLL: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. We’re so glad that you’re safe. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

PC: Yes. Thank you for all your hard work. I think every day, people hate rich capitalists and greedy oil executives more and more. They deserve our hatred. I hope we can have huge protests all over the place and finally force some real action. They’ll never do it without that.


Join the Struggle-La Lucha Telegram channel