There were seven avalanches, Dave Swisher told me. He’s the Chairman of the Fire Commission in Mono City.
Seven avalanches the last weekend of February. The slides toppled 20 power poles. The effects are still being felt.
“We lost our power on February 28,” said Mono City Resident Elysia Fischbach. For five days. “That was kind of the critical crisis point because not a lot of people had enough fuel for their generators, or people didn’t even have generators to be able to heat their homes.”
“When it all first popped off,” said Cory Duro, Mono City Fire Chief, “we woke up to, like, nine foot drifts in the surface streets of Mono City.” Nobody could drive, so the fire department went door to door by foot to check on residents.
As the fact of isolation settled in, daily community meetings were arranged at the firehouse “to keep the community’s composure … and anxiety level down,” said Duro. It brought everyone together.
“We’ve had residents [at the meetings] that live up at the top of Mono City … that I’ve never really met up until this point, and they’ve been there for years.” In addition to fostering a sense of camaraderie, residents would exchange resources like firewood and food at the meetings. A group chat was also created so that community updates could be shared effectively and efficiently.
It took about a week for Southern California Edison to get the Lundy Power Plant started and bring electricity to Mono City Residents. The plant continues to be the community’s power source.
It took about five days for Hwy. 167 to open. Until then, nobody could get in or out of the town.
It was nerve-wracking for Duro and his team. “We were literally trapped in place… So, as far as the EMS/fire side of it, it was very nerve-wracking, considering if I had an emergency I didn’t have any means to get anybody in or out.”
He and his crew took it one day at a time.
During the community’s isolation, the National Guard airdropped water, MREs – things like that, Fischbach said. She became Mono City’s community liaison to Chris Mokracek, Mono County’s Director of Emergency Services.
She’s also a Special Ed teacher who works mostly in Mammoth. Her 40 minute commute is now 4 hours due to the highway closure (which continues to have no set date for re-opening). She lives with friends in Mammoth during the week and returns to Mono City on the weekends.
“A lot of us are in that predicament,” she said. “And a lot of families have either been moving over to Lee Vining and living with friends or in the Catholic rectory there because the children have to be in-seat at the Lee Vining school, or they have to make the trek over to Bridgeport.”
Before the in-seat requirement, for about two weeks, two Lee Vining teachers – Todd Wanner and Monica Eilts – set up makeshift schools in their homes (with the approval of the Principal and Superintendent).
Wanner – who’s been teaching at Lee Vining for 14 years – hosted the high school. “We were spread out into three different rooms,” he said. “Mr. Brown could do all the science classes in the dining room, and I had Spanish in the living room. And then other kids were on Zoom – English – out by the fireplace in the den… I think what was good about it is that rather than every kid at home, on the computer without any supervision, they got to come to a place and see their peers.”
Plus, they had teachers there who could keep them on task. No opening up a second tab to shop for shoes or play Bloons Tower Defense 5 during grammar lessons.
At the most, he had 9 students in his house at once.
For physical education, he took students cross country skiing.
Now, he’s in Bridgeport, teaching four kids. He misses the intimacy of his home school. “We could go sit around the fire and drink tea at break,” he said.
Monica Eilts – teacher for five years, her second year full time – hosted the elementary and middle school. 7 kids – Kindergarten through 3rd grade – would come in the morning for a couple hours. Later, about 7 or 8 kids would come for 5th through 8th grade – also a couple hours.
“All the students had packets from their teachers,” she said. She’d supervise. “There was a lot of in and out of my house,” she said. After the middle schoolers would come in for their session, she’d take the kids up to Wanner’s house for their cross country skiing activity.
Eilts is currently living in June, at a friend’s cabin. “It’s just not home,” she said. “I can see how it’s affecting [kids that have had to relocate] emotionally, for sure.”
“We’re hearing that maybe this weekend they’re going to allow residents of Mono City to be escorted through,” she said. “It’s hard to say if that’s for sure… if there’s any weather coming in then that could change.”
About the avalanches, Fischbach said, “We really have come out stronger. We’ve learned a lot – we’ve learned how to adapt and modify and we love living here. It’s an awesome community, but it’s definitely been challenging the last month or so.”
Another example of community resilience: thanks to a man named Eric and his bumper-plow pickup truck, Mono City Road has been getting plowed.
One of the community’s long term solutions to prevent future avalanche isolation: cover that section of the highway with snow sheds. “We have no idea if it’s even feasible,” said Fischbach. But it’s an idea.
“We felt like a third world country,” said Swisher about Mono City during the Avalanche Times. But through it all – water shortages, power outages, road closures, hours long road trips to the nearest town – the community has survived.
“It is Mono City,” said Swisher. “We stick together.”