Snowed-in Big Bear woman among 3 found dead in welfare checks since snowstorms

Snowed-in Big Bear woman among 3 found dead in welfare checks since snowstorms

Michelle Hake’s sister had been snowed in for days, alone in her Big Bear home. Her family said it wasn’t clear how urgent her medical needs had grown during last month’s record-setting snowstorms.

She “needed medical attention in the midst of the storm, and we could not get that to her,” Hake said. Her family called for an emergency wellness check Monday.

“We were too late,” she said.

Deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office found Hake dead just after 9 a.m. Monday, according to agency spokesperson Mara Rodriguez. A cause of death has not been determined, but Rodriguez said there were no signs of trauma or suspicious circumstances.

Hake, who requested that her adult sister not be identified, declined to expound on her sister’s medical history or what might have led to her death. But she said she had no doubt that her sister would have gotten the care she needed had the storms not trapped her inside, cutting her off from help.

“We were trying to get someone to go check on her,” Hake said. “There was literally no access to get to her; she lives alone. And for so many that are [stuck] in their homes, that is their story.”

At least two other people in San Bernardino’s mountain communities have also been found dead through welfare checks since Feb. 23, when the historic snowstorms first started, Rodriguez said. Another was found dead in Big Bear and the third in Valley of Enchantment, a neighborhood in Crestline.

Rodriguez didn’t have additional details on the other deaths, and all are awaiting autopsies. As of Wednesday, however, she said none of the three was considered storm-related. She did not immediately respond to questions about how that designation is determined.

Hake said many worry there might be more casualties yet to be discovered, as people continue to dig out from the snow.

“The level of loss and just the magnitude of the storm … I just cannot convey enough just how devastating” it has been, Hake said.

For nearly two weeks, many living in mountain communities from Crestline to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear have been trapped under massive amounts of snow — more than 100 inches in some places — while officials have struggled to clear roadways and provide relief after back-to-back storms pummeled the region with blizzard conditions and relentless snowfall. Residents were without power for days, roofs and decks collapsed, gas leaks spurred storm-related fires and entire neighborhoods struggled to get supplies of food and gas.

As of Wednesday morning, about 95% of San Bernardino County roads had been cleared, officials said, but they noted that many of those roadways were still only wide enough to accommodate single-lane traffic. Almost 30 miles of roads still have not been plowed.

Hake and her family were without power in their Crestline home for at least five days, she said, eventually relocating to a friend’s house to wait for the power to be restored and roads to clear. She said that, for days, there was no way to get to Big Bear to check on her sister, or even to her parents’ home in nearby Lake Arrowhead.

“It feels like we are living in an alternate reality up here,” Hake said. As president of the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, she was helping to coordinate supply drop-offs and facilitate wellness checks across the mountain community — even before her sister was found dead.

She said during one of those checks, a neighbor found an elderly man inside his home, where, “for the last five days he had been rationing a frozen tamale.”

“I don’t think people know how dire it is right now,” Hake said. “We are literally trying to find people like my sister, people who are in their homes, and their life is hanging in the balance.”

Hake’s store, Hearth & Sage General Store in Crestline, remains closed, and she doesn’t expect to reopen it with the roads still difficult to pass and most parking lots full of excess snow from plowing.

“Right now, we’re still focused on getting to people in need and getting everybody accounted [for],” Hake said.

Rodriguez, the San Bernardino sheriff’s spokesperson, said the number of welfare checks in recent days had decreased significantly. She said officials were making house calls the same day a welfare check was requested.

If anyone needs help checking on a neighbor or loved one, officials said to call 911 or the county’s Storm Response Call Center at (909) 387-3911.