Stranger becomes hero during Tropical Storm Hilary flooding in SoCal

ByGloria Rodríguez KGO logo
Thursday, August 31, 2023
Stranger becomes hero during Tropical Storm Hilary flooding
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The Mendiola family is still cleaning up more than a week after Tropical Storm Hilary flooded parts of their city and their home.

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Mud was all over the kitchen counters, floor, everywhere inside the Mendiola family home in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.

The family is still cleaning up more than a week after Tropical Storm Hilary flooded parts of their city and their home.

"It's unlivable at this point," said Ellisa Mendiola. "Just think about knee-high mud in your home."

Cathedral City was one of the hardest-hit areas and, like dozens of others, the Mendiolas had to be rescued from the flood waters. But their experience was different.

RELATED: From downed eucalyptus trees to flooded deserts: Photos of Hilary, an unusual SoCal tropical storm

As Hilary pounded Southern California Aug. 19, water and mud gushed into the Mendiola's home.

Arcie Mendiola and her daughter, Ellisa, live in the house along with four other family members, including a two-year-old.

"We got woken up by my sister yelling for help, and a loud bang of our wall, our fireplace actually, coming crashing in," Ellisa said. "And then that's when we saw all of the mud coming into our home."

Not knowing how high the water and mud would rise, they rushed to the roof of their home.

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From there, they could see the flooded streets and cars being swept away.

They called 911.

"Our dispatcher, she was really kind, but she was basically just telling us like 1, they're getting a lot of calls already, and 2, that help is on the way, that they're aware of our situation," Ellisa said. "However, they're unaware when we're going to be able to get help. You almost feel hopeless seeing the firefighters flashing their lights at us from the street behind us and having to go back because they can't get through."

To top it off, there was a gas leak. Arcie prayed on the roof.

RELATED: Tropical Storm Hilary: Video shows roads flooded, cars abandoned in Southern California

"I'm a mess," Arcie said. "I'm calling my son Eddie, because I don't know if it's the last time I'm going to see him, just to tell him that I love him. And if anything happens to us, just know that we love him, and it's just emotional, because, like my daughter says, it's the unknown. I mean, you would never expect something like this to happen to you."

Especially not in a desert city.

But then hope arrived. Jimmy Laker was driving around in his truck with his girlfriend, Cindy Gilissen Smith.

"Earlier in the day...I went through and pulled some people out and my vehicle was able to go through some of the treacherous spots that others weren't able to go to, so I took advantage of that to be able to help people out," Laker said.

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They spotted the Mendiolas on their roof.

"That's when reality just kind of hit us," he said. "And we're like, 'Wow, there's like people were hollering for help from both sides.' I think they seen my vehicle. They seen other people attempting, and other people weren't making it down there, so it seemed kind of like a dry hope for them."

The couple helped an elderly woman next door covered in mud escape and get medical attention.

Then, they came back for the Mendiolas, helping them come down from the roof and into Laker's truck.

RELATED: 'Serious rain': Bay Area natives in SoCal feel impact of Tropical Storm Hilary

For Arcie, Laker is a hero.

"Our angel, I mean, God knew we went through a crisis, and he answered. And yeah, I don't know. If it wasn't for Jimmy, I don't know how long we would have been on that roof."

Fourteen elderly people living a few doors down in a board and care facility wouldn't be rescued until many hours later. In all, Cathedral City officials said fire crews rescued more than 60 people affected by the four to five feet of mudwalls.

"I couldn't leave a family sitting like that," Laker said. "I couldn't leave anybody sitting like that, whether they were old, babies. If I didn't know them, if they were troubled people, I wouldn't care. They're human beings, just as I am, and I wouldn't want to be just left stranded. I felt I had the ability to help and that I needed to do it."

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Laker said the mud was so thick he couldn't keep helping others. He has a lifted truck and that truck got some damage. But he said that didn't matter. He really wanted to help.

The Mendiolas said their home is now unlivable and they are still cleaning up with the help of their family, friends and community.

The family has an online fund to help them since they lost so much.