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Mountain volunteers were a lifeline in a world buried in snow. And they're not done

Nathan Solis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — The snow is melting in the San Bernardino Mountains after eight to 12 feet of powder fell in back-to-back winter storms last month.

Damaged homes dot the landscape, and the storms will have an economic ripple effect on the mountain communities that will continue long after the snow is gone, according to mutual aid groups, which point out that — weeks after the worst weather — people are still trying to refill depleted pantries and remain in need of other resources.

San Bernardino County plans to wind down a food distribution center in the hard-hit Crestline community by the end of the month, and the Red Cross will close its shelters for people displaced by the storms on a similar schedule.

Established mutual aid groups and citizen volunteer groups that formed during the storms believe the area's long-term recovery needs to involve community-led efforts, much like those driven by residents who banded together when county and state agencies were slow to respond amid the crisis.

"You don't just get your road plowed and then you get your car out and then things are OK. There's so many things you have to deal with afterward," said Dawn Wisner Johnson, a volunteer with the grassroots organization Operation Mountain Strong.

Material goods can be replaced, Johnson said, but after weeks of being trapped in their homes by several feet of snow — often facing fear and desperation — people will need to work through the trauma, which will linger like a bruise.


On a recent overcast afternoon in March, 60-year-old Johnson was at Northgate Baptist Church in San Bernardino, trying to help a Crestline woman find a pair of shoes. The woman also needed a new roof; hers collapsed in the storms. County officials said there were currently 68 homes that had been red-tagged, meaning they are unlivable, and 196 have received some type of structural damage.

Members of citizen volunteer groups who spoke with The Times said they never wanted to be caught off-guard again. They want to organize and prepare for whatever comes next, like possible landslides or floods.

"I want the world to know that we're in this for the long haul, and probably for the next disaster," Johnson said of Operation Mountain Strong, "because we've learned so much through this."

Johnson and other volunteers at the church continue to fill grocery bags with canned food, bread and other goods even though the main highways to the mountains have been cleared.


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