Fierce Winds Hit Desert: Sandstorms and More Temporarily Cripple Coachella Valley

Broken off by Saturday's high winds, a power pole rests precariously on nearby lines. | Creative Commons photo by Florian Boyd
Broken off by Saturday's high winds, a power pole rests precariously on nearby lines. | Creative Commons photo by Florian Boyd

Low desert residents were still picking up the pieces on Monday after a ferocious windstorm brought gusts up to 70 mph to the Coachella Valley and surrounding area. Trees came down in city parks during the storm. Plate glass windows shattered in restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. Airborne debris broke windows out of parked autos and clogged the air filters of cars still moving.

It was an impressive reminder that for all the Valley's seeming domestication, despite our manicured lawns, fountains, and irrigated gardens, we still live in the desert.

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It could have been a lot worse. Four people were injured on Interstate 10 when a bus and a Ford Taurus tangled in mid-sandstorm. Police reported the injured had suffered "moderate to major injuries," and two lanes on the eastbound side of the freeway were closed for half an hour, the police officers in attendance wearing goggles against the wind-blown sand. Given the evidence in this video, shot on the same stretch of highway, it's a wonder there was just the one accident:

Aside from that unfortunate accident, no major injuries were reported as a result of the storm. The bulk of the damage done was economic, and property owners and their insurers will be taking the hit for a while. Commenters on the website of the Desert Sun shared stories of the damage to their homes and automobiles: roofs blowing off, fences lost, mature trees uprooted.

I was outside when it started, drinking coffee on a Starbucks' patio with my fiancee and watching the clouds seep over mount San Jacinto to our west.

Clouds over San Jacinto | Chris Clarke photo
Clouds over San Jacinto | Chris Clarke photo

The wind started to pick up as we walked across a parking lot toward a supermarket. Within seconds each of us was picking grit out of our eyes and mouths. By the time we left the market fifteen minutes later, Palm Springs looked pretty much like this:

The area's signature native fan palms began to shed their dried fronds. If the palms were trying to underscore LA Times columnist Emily Green's tongue-in-cheek contention that they're the most dangerous street tree in the world, they were very persuasive. Some of the spiky fronds weighed as much as two pounds, capable of doing a fair bit of damage as they crashed to earth -- and then lifted off again on the violent updrafts. By the time we got home to our apartment the wind had gotten just plain frightening. About two blocks from the steep base of San Jacinto, our neighborhood served as a funnel to amplify the wind. Panicked ravens fell horizontally past our windows at what looked like about 50 miles an hour.

It's interesting just how flexible even a rigid, two-story stucco building can be. Gusts just shy of hurricane force made our apartment building shimmy and shudder. The weatherstripping in the windows made rude noises. A friend on Twitter invoked TS Eliot:


This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a braaaap!


And then, as suddenly as the storm had come, it ended.

We were fortunate: we lost power only for a moment and weathered the storm comfortably. Others were without power for far longer. Few people were as inconvenienced as the 17 hikers atop Mount San Jacinto who were stranded when gusts reported to be in the triple digits forced tram operators to shut down operations. The hikers spent a very cold night in a mule shed in the state park. They reported no injuries.

Mature trees were uprooted in Sunrise, Demuth and Ruth Hardy parks in Palm Springs, and along streets and in private yards. Damage to structures was considerable. Yards of metal flashing was stripped from the facade of the old Santa Fe Federal Savings building in Palm Springs, slated for use this year as the architectural wing of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Shingles went missing from roofs. A tree fell onto a carport in the southeastern part of Palm Springs, crushing the vehicles beneath. Powerlines came down across major thoroughfares: Gene Autry Trail remained closed north of town on Tuesday morning.

And throughout the valley, as the whine of chainsaws filled the air cutting up fallen trees, people tried not to let their guard down: high wind advisories remained in effect as the low-pressure system that had spawned Saturday's storm moved painfully slowly out of California and farther into the desert.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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