Heavy rain falls as Hurricane Hillary reaches San Diego County

Heavy rain falls as Hurricane Hillary reaches San Diego County

A persistent tropical storm named Hillary left an indelible impression on San Diego County on Sunday, toppling trees, shifting boulders, flooding intersections and canceling flights with winds and rain more reminiscent of winter than summer.

The center of the storm also arrived sooner than expected, moving through San Diego between about 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. before veering away toward Palm Springs, the National Weather Service said. Forecasters, who thought Hillary might appear around 6 p.m., will reconstruct its exact path over the next two days.

For the record:

7:23 PM August 20, 2023An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Big Black Mountain as Big Bear Mountain.

to update:

7:23 PM August 20, 2023The NWS says Hillary's center passed through San Diego between 2:30 pm and 3 pm on Sunday.

7:23 PM August 20, 2023NWS says “life-threatening” flash flooding may occur in East County until 2:30 p.m

7:23 PM August 20, 2023The NWS warns that Hillary could generate tornadoes in San Diego County on Sunday afternoon.

The first tropical storm to directly hit the city in more than 80 years appeared to be generating 50 to 60 mph winds as it swept through the county.

Hillary made landfall south of Ensenada, Mexico, at around 11 a.m. Sunday. This greatly weakened the regime. But the storm was still strong and was battering the coast with high winds during the dinner hour and was expected to cloud the skies until early Monday.

Wind and rain from Tropical Storm Hillary arrives at Mission Beach as a man walks past a swimwear store on Sunday.

(KC Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune)

All of this prompted the San Diego Unified School District — the largest in the county — to postpone the first day of school on Monday, with students starting on Tuesday. However, the Ramona, Borrego Springs and Lakeside school districts have set Monday as the start of the new year, and currently have no plans to change that.

Memos from officials in several districts indicated that no other district besides San Diego would close its campuses on Monday.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria declared a state of emergency, a move that enables the city to access state and federal resources for disaster response, if necessary.

President Joe Biden said he spoke with Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday about the emergency preparedness measures in place and will continue to update him on the storm's impact. FEMA personnel, supplies, and U.S. Coast Guard aircraft were prepositioned to respond when necessary.

“My administration stands ready to provide additional assistance as requested,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. “I urge people to take this storm seriously and listen to their state and local officials.”

Miguel Ramirez places a tarp over a house

Miguel Ramirez places a tarp over a house in preparation for Tropical Storm Hillary in Colonia Nueva Esperanza in eastern Tijuana.

(Ana Ramirez/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Most people didn't quite know what to expect on Sunday when they woke up. Relatively few people have ever experienced a tropical storm. Such systems usually bend westward and die over cold waters long before they reach the Baja California Peninsula.

But Hillary continued to run from north to northwest and quickly established her credibility, producing sheets of rain and wild winds that revived dry stream beds and made kites out of lawn chairs.

The system ended up dropping much less rain than the weather service had predicted. Most coastal cities received less than an inch as of early evening. Meteorologists believe the number will be 1.5 to 2 inches. But inland areas fared well, especially Mount Laguna, which recorded more than 6 inches of rain by late afternoon, moisture that could delay the start of wildfire season.

Two kisses in the rain

With the Oceanside Pier in the background, Zachary and Madison Chitty of Oceanside, married for about a year, share a kiss while checking Tropical Storm Hilary activity from the South Pier in Harbor Beach.

(Howard Libin/San Diego Union-Tribune)

In its own way, the number at San Diego International Airport was even more impressive: 0.86 inches. The airport averages 0.01 inch during the entire month of August. The mere threat of heavy rain and strong winds approaching the airport led to the cancellation of more than 200 flights on Sunday.

Hillary's winds were also impressive, reaching 84 mph at Big Black Mountain near Ramona.

By dinner hour, Hillary had not caused any major accident. But it caught everyone's attention, especially between about 2:30pm and 4pm

Heavy rains caused flooding on stretches of State Route 94 and parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 8. Rocks loosened by heavy rain were rolling in Julian, the weather service said. It then issued a tornado warning for the Alpine region.

Homeless people use plastic tarps to protect themselves

Homeless people use plastic tarps to protect themselves from the rain brought by Tropical Storm Hillary in downtown San Diego.

(Damien Dovarganis/Associated Press)

At noon, the weather service said Hillary was a “life-threatening” threat to much of the eastern province, with rain falling at a rate of one inch per minute in some areas.

No deaths were reported by the time the warning expired at 2:30 p.m., but it raised concern at a time when television forecasters were showing ominous graphics and repeatedly saying Southern California would be hit hard.

The California Highway Patrol said moving rocks in In-Ku-Pah blocked several lanes of Interstate 8, closing lanes and controlling one-way traffic. Runoff also appears to have caused a mudslide near Julian that closed the southbound lanes of State Route 78 near Banner Drive, authorities said.

Caltrans crews respond to large rocks on Interstate 8 near In-Ko-Pah.

Caltrans crews respond to large rocks on Interstate 8 near In-Ko-Pah.


Despite mud, trees and rocks on some highways, road conditions across the province as of 2 p.m. were “pretty good” considering the rainfall, CHP official Mark LaTulippe said.

“So far it looks no worse than a normal rainy day, and probably better than most rainy days,” LaTulippe said. “I think a lot of people have chosen to stay home and avoid travel, which is helping.”

However, many churches have asked parishioners and volunteers to stay home on Sunday, offering live-streamed services instead. The roads were unusually quiet, even on a Sunday, and some businesses decided to close early.

The winds appear to have contributed to the roughly 2,000 power outages reported by San Diego Gas & Electric.

Hillary first hit the coast in a sparsely populated area about 150 miles south of Ensenada.

The storm has already caused flooding along the Baja California peninsula, and heavy rains have threatened mudslide-prone Tijuana, where informal homes cling to hillsides just south of the US border.

Zona Rio traffic flows through flooded streets Sunday in Tijuana.

Zona Rio traffic flows through flooded streets Sunday in Tijuana.

(San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reported moderate damage in Baja California as of Sunday afternoon.

People ignore warning signs for beach closures in Las Playas de Tijuana as Tropical Storm Hillary heads toward Tijuana.

People ignore warning signs for beach closures in Las Playas de Tijuana as Tropical Storm Hillary heads toward Tijuana.

(Ana Ramirez/San Diego Union-Tribune)

One person drowned on Saturday in the Mexican town of Santa Rosalia in Baja California Sur state when a car was swept into a stream.

Such storms are rare in this part of Baja California. But it likely won't be the last one to happen this year. The National Hurricane Center reported Sunday that a tropical depression may be active on the southwest coast of Mexico, in the same general area where Hillary occurred.

Rainfall totals as of 4:30 p.m.: Laguna Mountain 6.29 inches; Ranchita, 3.97 inches; Lake Cuyamaca 3.70 inches; Mount Woodson, 1.73 inches; Sante, 1.63 inches; Mount Otay 1.51 inches; Lake Miramar 1.43 inches; Poway, 1.35 inches; Escondido, 1.29 inches; Carlsbad, 1.25 inches; Oceanside, 1.14 inches; Kearney Mesa, 1.14 inches; San Diego International Airport 0.86 inches; Encinitas, 0.82 inches; Chula Vista, 0.74 inch;

Staff writers Tammy Murga, David Hernandez, Alexandra Mendoza, David Garrick, Abby Hamblin, Lindsay Winkley and Philip Molnar, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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