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‘Poppy Apocalypse’: Small California city overrun by thousands of tourists declares ‘public safety crisis’

Visitors walk through poppy fields during a "super bloom" in Lake Elsinore, Calif., on Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg News)

Hillsides blanketed in brightly colored flowers are often a blissful, at times even calming, sight. But for one small city in Southern California, the idyllic scenes have become a chaotic nightmare: The “Poppy Apocalypse.”

The harbingers of destruction? Tens of thousands of flower-crazed tourists.

Officials in Lake Elsinore, Calif., located just over an hour southeast of Los Angeles, announced Sunday that they had closed off access to their famed California golden poppy fields after “Disneyland size crowds” inundated the city of about 66,000 over the weekend, straining resources and creating a “public safety crisis.”

"This weekend has been unbearable,” the city said in Sunday’s announcement, which was shared across social media platforms. “We will evaluate all options next week including ways to shut this down. . . . We know it has been miserable and has caused unnecessary hardships for our entire community.”

The post included a graphic with a prominent red X over a photo of the poppy fields and large text that read, “No more shuttles or Entrance" and “No Viewing or Visiting.” It also featured several pointed hashtags, such as “#PoppyShutdown,” “#PoppyNightmare” and “#IsItOver.”

City officials did not respond to requests for comment late Sunday.

This isn’t the first time the area has been flooded with tourists eager to see the abundant display of desert flowers known as a super bloom, a natural phenomenon in which wildflowers blossom at higher-than-normal rates following a period of unusually heavy rainfall and favorable temperatures, the Los Angeles Times reported. Because of its proximity to Walker Canyon, an ecological reserve spanning 490 acres, Lake Elsinore has been featured on several lists of places people should visit if they want to see a super bloom.

This year, city officials appeared excited to welcome visitors again, the Times reported.

“Those hills are just covered with millions of poppies,” Kim Cousins, president of the Lake Elsinore Valley Chamber of Commerce, told the Times. “It’s on, as they say.”

In an interview with the Valley News, Lake Elsinore Mayor Steve Manos touted the phenomenon as a way to showcase the city’s “natural beauty.”

But then, the visitors started showing up — and they kept coming.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Manos wrote in a post titled “POPPY PROBLEMS” shared to Facebook on Tuesday. The number of visitors was “unprecedented,” he wrote, adding that residents should “avoid the area at all costs this weekend.”

Officials came up with detailed plans to handle the influx of people that included developing a shuttle bus system, but Manos’s posts on Saturday appeared to reflect an increasingly dire situation.

“We’re short-handed,” he wrote. “One of our employees was hit and run by a driver. A rattlesnake bit a visitor. Residents have been screaming at the people directing traffic.”

Lines of cars moving at a snail’s pace had turned major roadways into parking lots. State and county agencies were called on for help. City council members stood in the street with flags controlling traffic. Left largely unsupervised, unruly tourists trampled and plucked the vibrant blossoms.

“It’s insane,” Manos wrote, estimating that around 50,000 people had come to Lake Elsinore on Saturday, some of whom had been waiting in line since 5:30 a.m. By early Monday, there were more than 105,000 Instagram posts using the hashtag #superbloom, a number of which were taken at Walker Canyon.

On Facebook, the city shared equally desperate updates, imploring visitors to reschedule their trips.

“The City has expended all available resources to address the #SuperBloom,” read one post on Saturday. “We have brought in all available staff, as many outside traffic controllers that we could, more shuttles, and our small City can not sustain crowds of this magnitude.”

It continued: “We are running out of options.”

By Sunday, the predicament had not improved.

“Our employees that have been working 7 days straight and 12 hour days are being met with the worst kinds of behavior,” the city wrote in a Facebook post.

Videos shared by Manos on Sunday showed rows of cars stuck in traffic on the highway as far as the eye could see.

As he walked toward the trailhead, passing throngs of people, a portable toilet caught his attention. A sign had been placed in front that read, “Full, do not use.” Unfortunately, there had been problems getting people to come change out the commodes, he said, there was just too much traffic.

“We’re just trying to deal with it the best we can,” Manos said in a video. “We really do have every member of our staff out there,” even the employee who was injured by the car.

“The guy that got hit by the car, got up, limped off and worked a 12-hour day,” he said. “This is the commitment from your city staff.”

Though the city announced a #PoppyShutdown and closed the fields to visitors, Manos warned residents on Sunday that the mania may not be over just yet. Later this week, the forecast calls for rain, which only means one thing: More flowers.

“The rain’s gonna be like vitamins for these poppies,” he said in the video. “I expect next weekend is gonna be almost as bad as this one. . . . This is a taste of what might be to come.”

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