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Before Hilary strikes, Catalina residents, visitors pack boats, evacuate

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Before Hilary strikes, Catalina residents, visitors pack boats, evacuate

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department phone alert hit about 10 a.m. Saturday advising Catalina Island residents and visitors to evacuate — especially those with medical conditions or in need of extra assistance — touching off a scramble onto packed ferries all afternoon.

With historic Hurricane Hilary pushing into Southern California, many were not taking any chances.

At first, Gina McMullen wasn’t worried when she and her family disembarked Thursday from the Long Beach port for their weekend vacation to Catalina. McMullen, 47, of Oceanside, had obviously heard news about Hurricane Hilary, but said she wasn’t tracking it.

“My mother started texting me, and I (told her), ‘We’re going to be fine, Mom, it’s not going to hit for a while,” McMullen said.

But the alert changed her outlook and by 1 p.m., she and her nine family members — some visiting from out of state — were on a boat leaving the island, cutting the trip a day short.

“We didn’t want to take a risk, and (the crew) said they probably weren’t going to be running any of the boats tomorrow afternoon,” McMullen said.

Officials had not issued mandatory evacuation orders as of Saturday evening — and unless the storm intensifies, officials aren’t expecting to issue one, said Deputy Miguel Meza, a public information officer with the Sheriff’s Department.

“We are suggesting to those who are visiting the island to take the ferry, which is most commonly the Catalina Express, to get back home and for those who can evacuate and would like to evacuate to please do so, because we don’t know what the weather will be like for tomorrow during this hurricane,” Meza said.

Evacuees from Catalina Island disembark from a ferry.

Evacuees from Catalina Island arrive in Long Beach in advance of Hurricane Hilary.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Boats were scheduled to run until 9 p.m. For those who stay, deputies, firefighters and local officials have set up an island command post to help, Meza said.

The last two boats of the Catalina Flyer, a ferry service out of Newport Beach, were nearly at capacity Saturday. A company representative said it does not plan to run boats Sunday, and probably not Monday either.

All seats for leaving the island on the Catalina Express, one of the main boat services to the island, quickly sold out Saturday, and the company added additional boats to run after hours, said Karen Gee-McAuley, a public relations representative for the express.

As of Saturday afternoon, boats were still set to depart the following morning, she said.

A popular tourist destination for both locals and out-of-towners, Catalina Island is a 76-mile island about 20 miles from the coast of the South Bay, according to the island’s tourism authority. About 4,000 people live on the island permanently, the majority in the picturesque city of Avalon. Catalina is one of the eight Channel Islands.

It’s usually a peaceful getaway where visitors can golf, snorkel, dive and kayak.

But on Saturday at the Glenmore Plaza Hotel on Catalina Island, visitors were “on edge” trying to make sure they get refunds, said Sam Huertes, an employee at the front desk.

Huertes said he is skeptical that any boats will run tomorrow.

“Everyone is trying to leave today,” Huertes said. “We had a lot of people coming, but now it’s all kind of hitting the fan.”

Huertes said island residents and hotel workers are not too concerned by the forecast, and many people on the island are still “vacationing and relaxing.”

Still, there’s a buzz of anxiety among tourists wondering whether they will end up stuck on the island longer than they wanted.

Similar concerns led Anthony Deptula and his co-workers to leave Saturday.

Deptula said when more than 30 employees from across the U.S. arrived at Catalina Island on Thursday for a work retreat, the plan was to bond over kayaking and biking.

Instead, nearly half the team scrambled to leave together Saturday afternoon. Others waited anxiously to leave Saturday night.

Saturday afternoon, when Deptula and 13 co-workers left Catalina Island, lines were “crazy,” he said. Cutting the retreat short was a disappointment — one that’s “not gonna be great for the pocket book” — but Deptula, who downed a Dramamine for the choppy waters, said he felt relieved and that he made the right decision.

Other, he said, weren’t ready to leave the island. Deptula said he saw tourists on bachelor parties planning on stay, and even some of his co-workers — from Florida — were unfazed by the warning.

“Today it was beautiful. It was a gorgeous day. I could see people just wanting to stay because it was so pretty. But it might not stay that way,” he said.

McMullen, whose family usually makes an annual trip to Catalina Island, said as they packed up Saturday, the mood on the island was calm. No one was outwardly panicking.

Residents zoomed along on golf carts, headed to the grocery store to pick up water and other supplies.

In the distance, she and her family could see banks of clouds on the horizon, and the wind was starting to pick up. The sky was gray and it was eerily quiet, as if the birds had already left.

As McMullen and her family sat on the boat waiting to leave, they watched the island’s newest arrivals unload — sheriff’s deputies carrying their clothing, water, cots and other supplies off a U.S. Coast Guard vessel so they can stay for the next few days and serve residents.

Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.

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