An elderly woman who lived alone in the mountains of California was found dead on Monday after being trapped inside by a historic blizzard that dumped 10 feet of snow in the area.
Elinor ‘Dolly’ Avenatti, 93, was found by concerned neighbors after her Crestline neighborhood lost power and she was left without access to food for nearly two weeks.
She is just one of 12 Californians who were found dead in the aftermath of the tundra, as meteorologists warn that another storm could bring even more snow starting Thursday night.
As of Wednesday, three people were found dead during welfare checks, and at least one person died in a car crash due to the poor road conditions.
Ten others also died during the storm, officials with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said, but those deaths are not considered to be storm-related because the victims were already under medical care at the time.
Still, county officials say, the slow cleanup from the storm was ‘unavoidable.’
Avenatti was remembered Wednesday for her charity and cheeriness, with her neighbor Rhea-Frances Tetley telling the Los Angeles Times she ‘was a joy for the neighborhood.
‘She was feisty and independent and generous to a fault,’ Tetley said, describing how Avenatti was active in senior citizens groups, baked for her neighbors, walked daily before the fierce storm and collected bottles and cans for animal rights groups.
Before the storm hit, Avenatti warned her relatives not to visit citing the dangerous road conditions, her great niece, Valli Bryan Compton, told NBC News.
During that conversation, she said, Avenatti was her usual spry self and spoke of the weather conditions as a ‘winter wonderland.’
The power went out once during that call, though, and it took Compton about 20 minutes to get her great aunt back on the line.
Since then, Tetley said, neighbors began checking on her and delivering her food as the power was out in their area for nearly a week.
But when neighbors went to again check on her on Monday — the day their street finally regained electricity — Avenatti did not answer the door.
She was later found dead sitting near her fireplace, with Tetley saying she thinks Avenatti likely froze to death.
The family has not yet received a coroner’s report, but seem to agree with Tetley’s assessment, noting to CBS News that Avenatti ‘was probably confused as well because she was alone and isolated.
‘She kept her curtains closed and she often didn’t know the time, or if it was night or day.’
Compton added: ‘If she hadn’t lost power and wasn’t trapped in the house, I 99.99 percent believe she would still be here today,
‘At least she lived a great life and passed away in her happy place.’
Others have also come forward to talk about losing their friends and family in the wake of the storm as hundreds of residents were left stranded with mounds of snow preventing them from leaving through the front door.
Michelle Hake, president of the Crestline Chamber of Commerce, said her sister had been snowed in for days, alone in her Big Bear City home.
She ‘needed medical attention in the midst of the storm, and we could not get that to her,’ Hake told the Times.
She said her family called for an emergency welfare check on Monday but ‘we were too late,’ and deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office found her sister dead just after 9am.
A cause of death has not been determined, but officials ay there were no signs of trauma or suspicious circumstances.
It remains unclear what medical conditions Hake’s sister, who she refused to name, was suffering from.
‘We were trying to get someone to check on her,’ Hake said. ‘There were literally no access to get to her; she lives alone. And for so many that are [stuck] in their homes, that is their story.’
Kristy Baltezore also noted she found one of her Crestline neighbors dead after she went to check on her.
She said the woman was not ill and wasn’t disabled.
‘I know there are people dead,’ Baltezore said. ‘I see what every single person on that map needs. I know who they are. I know how vulnerable they are.
‘This is not good. We still have half our community we haven’t made contact with.’
Hake also said she doesn’t ‘think people know how dire it is right now,’ as she told how a neighbor found an elderly man inside his home where ‘for the last five days he had been rationing a frozen tamale.’
‘We are literally trying to find people like my sister, people whoa re in their homes, and their life is hanging in the balance.’
Among those at risk are Crestline resident Terri Lee who told NBC News on Wednesday she has been snowed in for 14 days and will run out of lifesaving medications by Friday for congestive hart failure and pulmonary hypertension.
She said her husband has severe arthritis in his back and is unable to shovel the snow that has built up outside their house.
‘It’s a scary situation,’ Lee said. ‘We can’t get out of our driveway and we can’t open the front door because the snow has piled up so high.’
She estimated that she called the county emergency hotline at least six times asking for help, and also tried calling 911 — which just referred her back to the county.
‘We were prepared with enough food for two weeks but never expected it would take so long to clear the snow,’ Lee said. ‘The county had plenty of time to prepare and they did nothing.’
A spokesperson for the county sheriff’s office now says Lee’s case will be escalated.
But county officials have so far defended their response, noting that as of Wednesday 90percent of roads had been plowed and sheriff’s deputies delivered freeze-dried meals to people who were running out of food.
‘We understand that people are not happy about being trapped in their homes,’ said David Werf, a spokesman for the county government, claiming: ‘This was really unavoidable.
‘When you have 10 feet of snow, there is no way to make it disappear instantly.’
Mike McClintock, the battalion chief with the San Bernardino Fire Department, said the area never experienced a snow storm of this magnitude.
‘The amount of snow is no shortage of a challenge for first responders and crews.’
When asked by NBC News why evacuations were not ordered ahead of the storm, Werf said they ‘were never on the table.
‘They were never discussed,’ he said. ‘Have you ever heard of evacuations before a snowstorm in any part of the country?’
Big Bear City in the San Gabriel Mountains received a record-breaking 80 inches over a seven-day period. Until this year, the most snow recorded in just one week was 58 inches in 1979.
The heavy snowfall left highways were closed to all but emergency vehicles for days as a shortage of tire chains had hampered authorities’ response and snow exceeded the capability of plows to clear the roads.
Crews then had to use earth-moving equipment and dump trucks to move the snow, as the National Guard sent search and rescue teams to check residences for anyone still stranded.
By Tuesday, those crews removed more than 7.2million cubic yards of snow from highways, which equals nearly 2,270 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to the governor’s office.