Most people think of deserts as places without water. But much of the American desert got pretty wet Tuesday, as an upper-atmosphere disturbance triggered violent thunderstorms across the Southwest. Hardest hit by the deluge were some of the Coachella Valley's poorest communities, which got almost twice their average annual rainfall in one day of storms -- a serious blow to people whose lives are already harder than they should be.
Damage from the storm system was widespread across the Southwest. Las Vegas, which received 1.75 inches of rain Tuesday -- the wettest September day on record for the Southern Nevada metropolis -- had numerous roadways flooded, with authorities rescuing stranded drivers by helicopter. At this writing, rescuers are still searching for a golf course groundskeeper whose tractor was found in 12 feet of water. Another cloudburst destroyed a dike in Santa Clara, Utah, sending water from a retention pond surging through that community's downtown area. Roads washed out near Tuba City, Arizona, stranding a number of residents of that largest community on the Navajo Reservation.
But though damage in expensive Las Vegas may outstrip flood damage done elsewhere in terms of economic value, the sheer devastation in the Riverside County cities of Mecca and Thermal is hard to match. Violent thunderstorms essentially parked over the neighboring communities at the north end of the Salton Sea on Tuesday for eight hours. Mecca received 5.5 inches of rain in those eight hours, nearly double its annual average of just over three inches. Thermal received 3.3 inches. Streets and unpaved roads in the two communities stood under several feet of water, stranding cars and filling residents' homes with mud.
Among the communities hardest hit was the notorious Mecca Desert Mobile Home Park, informally known as Duroville. Duroville a dilapidated trailer park home to about 1,500 people, most of them P'urhépecha Indians from the Mexican state of Michoacan. Established in 1999 on the Torres-Martinez Indian reservation next to an illegal dump that is usually on fire, Duroville is ostensibly nicknamed after founder Harvey Duro, but it's hard not to notice the sly bilingual pun: "duro" in Spanish can be translated as "difficult." Over the two decades since the park's establishment Duroville residents have contended with dangerous electrical wiring, trailers unsafe for habitation, packs of wild dogs, and two nearby ponds that serve as destinations for the park's sewage.
Despite the incredible hardships they face, Duroville residents have a strong sense of community: they've fought relocation, instead asking to better their living conditions where they are. In 2009 a U.S. District Court stripped Duro of power to manage the park; a court-appointed receiver is now responsible for operations and improvements. Residents have won some improvements, though sewage still runs to those nearby open lagoons through plastic pipes.
And Tuesday's flooding won't help. The park lost power for much of the day, shutting off one of the two well pumps that provide residents with drinking water, and health officials eyed the sewage lagoons nervously, fearing an overflow. A foot of water stood in parts of Duroville and about 80 residents sought shelter elsewhere. Late Tuesday evening, the second water pump failed. "None of us had ever been through anything like this," Tom Flynn, Duroville's court-appointed receiver, told reporters. "That much water in a dilapidated mobile home park was something to see." Riverside County is supplying residents with bottled water for drinking.
Elsewhere in Mecca and Thermal things aren't all that much different. Two thirds of Mecca's residents live at or below the federal poverty line, making it the 11th-poorest community in the state. More than half of Thermal's population is at or below that threshold as well. People without much money are usually less-well equipped to deal with weather disasters. And the storm hit the wider Mecca and Thermal community every bit as hard as it hit Durovile. Floodwaters rose high enough to send mud into homes, cars stalled out as water rose past three feet on city streets.
And now the cleanup begins, and it won't be pleasant. Temperatures in the Coachella Valley are expected to rise into the high 100s by late this week: not the kind of conditions you want to be shoveling mud in.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.