Windy Day in Paradise

Satellite imagery 24July2014

Satellite image of the storm’s intensity.

The weather in Baja is gorgeous about 95% of the time. There are more blue-sky days here on average than most places on Earth. We get our fair share of wind in the winter, which is why this is such a great wind and kite surfing locale, but those are nice constant winds of between 15 and 25 miles per hour. Summer winds whipped up by warm tropical disturbances are different – they are meaner, stronger, and can wreak serious havoc when they exceed the 60mph mark. They are typically preceded by skies heavy with grey clouds and sometimes thunder and lightning. Fortunately, thanks to modern weather predicting technologies, we usually know when they are coming and can prepare our homes by putting up window-protecting storm shutters, removing delicate window screens, and packing all the patio furniture and garden decorations away in garages and bodegas for safe keeping.

There is an energy of expectation and suspense that surrounds preparing for a storm. Perhaps that’s what I get off on, same as the adrenaline rush from surfing, that makes me embrace inclement weather. When I was a kid in Ontario, Canada and a big snowstorm blew up, I used to wrap myself in my father’s parka and walk through the streets of my small hometown buffeted by the wind. His coat reached mid-way down my calves and I had to wrap my arms around myself to pull it in and keep the frigid wind out. I think I felt more invincible in his coat than I would in my own snow gear, it was like he was there with me, his arms wrapped about me to fend off the weather. Icy snow flakes bit into the skin of my face and blew into the small space between my neck and the woolen scarf tightly cinched there. The sounds of the storm – the wind whipping along those otherwise quiet streets, through the trees so that their branches clicked and scratched out a dissonant beat, my boots crunching on the gathering snow drifts, the creak of icy power lines swaying overhead – accompanied me on my trek past small houses nestled into deep snow drifts. I relished the cold biting my nose, the sensation of ice crystals growing from the tips of my eyelashes, of cold air rushing into my mouth and down into my lungs. I’d walk the perimeter of our town in the dark of an early winter evening, the streetlights catching the flash of so many snowflakes flying about wildly in blasts of a northeast wind.

I approached rainy days in summer similarly – I would walk the streets of my town or the dirt round that defined the circumference of the lake where we had a cottage, getting soaked to the skin, shoes squishing, my socks falling from the added weight of the water they’d absorbed, gathering around my ankles. If it was windy, those rainy days almost made me feel as alive as a stormy winter night did. I embraced the power of the wind.

But…

Living at the tropical end of the Baja Peninsula could challenge the most ardent lover of wind not to forsake their love for calmer locales. The other day we had an unexpected chubasco (storm) come through in the early, soft lit hours of the morning. Aside from some thunder and lightning that woke me at 4:30am, the storm front hit with little warning at 6:40am. The sound of the wind wailing through window screens and the patter of large rain drops hitting the tiled patio outside my bedroom door roused me out of a sound, dream-filled sleep. In the time it took me to haul my still sleep-drenched body out of bed and wrap myself in a sarong, a howling gale had blown up out of nowhere. As I hurried down the stairs to gather patio furniture cushions, the wind grabbed my sarong, yanking it off with surprising force. I pulled it back around my chest in vain, the wind lashing out and ripping it off once again. I threw it on the dining table and ran naked about the house battening down the hatches.

The dogs, spooked by what were now 60 to 70 mile per hour winds, did their best to trip me up as I went from door to door to window, closing and latching them against the onslaught of wind and rain. The interior of the house looked like a wind tunnel experiment – papers and magazines were flying everywhere, window blinds flapped madly. Relief washed over me when Doobie, the senior member of the dog pack, padded up as quickly as her arthritic legs could carry her while I collected the cushions from the patio furniture. There was no time to get the patio furniture inside. I knew I had to pull the three sliders leading to the ocean-side patio closed NOW. But the largest one refused to latch – the force of the wind bent it so the two sides could not make contact. I left it and ran to close the windows upstairs.

When I returned to the living room, the wind had picked up another notch and ungodly sounds were coming from the unlatched door. It groaned and creaked in protest as I watched it bend and bow in response to the force of the wind. I pictured it exploding in a cloud of dagger-like shards and, in response, retreated to the garage, herding the dogs along with me. From the garage I heard a plaintiff meowing, a distress call from the bushes just outside the leeward side of the house. Responding to my encouragement Mochi the cat shot across the driveway and into the garage, managing somehow to escape getting soaked despite the huge rain drops that now pummeled the driveway. Even Mochi seemed to understand that the living room was a high risk zone and remained in the garage with the rest of us.

The wind slammed and shook the garage doors in a cacophony of metal on metal and the rain began to pour from the gutters in a torrent. Ungodly sounds were emanating from the house – moaning and groaning and howling her protests against the force of the wind.

I’m not sure how long we waited, but the wind soon weakened enough that I felt safe returning to the living room to try to close the slider once again. With a great deal of effort and several tries I managed to latch it, relief washing over me. A large puddle of water had gathered inside the three sliding glass doors – the rain forced through the tiny space between the doors and their tracks. As I mopped up the water, I felt the sting of wind-blown sand hitting my leg and discovered that the wind had also unseated one of the sliders and opened a quarter-inch space between the frame and the door. Amazing! Those doors are heavy!

Fortunately, the storm only lasted a couple of hours, but she managed to wreak some serious havoc all along the coast nevertheless. Here three screens were bent and torn off windows, several others tweaked out of shape, the screens stretched and pulled from their frames. The cover for the barbecue is MIA. It was weighed down with three heavy clay floor tiles, but the wind must have got under it, threw the tiles to one side and launched that heavy cover like it was a plastic grocery bag. It’s out there somewhere in the desert. My neighbors had palapas torn apart or knocked over, roof tiles ripped off, gates and unlatched doors pulled from their hinges. Coconuts and fronds turned to ballistics, felled from palms in a frightening volley. It’s amazing no one was hurt.

In the cleanup afterwards, we found sand everywhere. Sand blew into every crack and crevice, collected in large volumes all over the patios and as high as the second story. It blew so hard, it blasted the paint right off the metal gate to the beach.

In my twelve years living here at the southern tip of Baja, I’ve never before experienced a storm of this magnitude come up so quickly. So while I do love inclement weather, I prefer the kind that comes up slowly, with warning, and time to prepare. And the feelings I have towards hurricanes lie somewhere other than in the “love” spectrum. We’re in the thick of hurricane season now and with sea and air temperatures higher than we’ve experienced in several years, it bodes to be an active one with storms continuing to form well into October. I beseech Mother Nature, keep those Category 4 hurricanes well out to sea this year.

Tropical Storm Hector: Day 4

View to the point at 8:30am. There’s blue sky up there!

This is the fourth installment of a series of blogs describing my experience of events surrounding the first measurable rainfall we’ve had on the East Cape of Baja in four years.

Last night I fell asleep instantly and was haunted by dreams of unrequited desire after speed reading Chapter Six of 50 Shades of Grey. I woke up at some ungodly hour and upon opening my eyes, was relieved to see stars twinkling outside my window.

This morning there are big grey and white fluffy, not-at-all-foreboding clouds riddling the sky and the sun peaks out every several minutes giving me a sense that we may be over the hump.

I start the kettle for coffee, open all the windows to let the air circulate and check the status of my internet connection. Only two green lights peer back at me, “Damn!” I’d hoped to get the latest on road conditions. Next I check Zee’s leg for infection – so far so good – and I notice she is putting more weight on it, a very good sign. I still have to beg her to come outside with me to do her business though, which tells me she is still in some pain.

I begin the process of assessing the property for rain damage – there are two large and deep erosion channels, both of which threaten to undermine the integrity of expensive infrastructure (a stone wall and a walkway).  I put the caretaker Felipe to work filling the holes with large boulders and rocks, the only sure way to dissipate the destructive energy of running water.

A dark cloud passes overhead sending a fine mist down over us, but it is short lived and the clouds are slowly dissipating. I feel a surge in the humidity as the sun’s rays make passage and strike the moist ground. Cicadas buzz and a cactus wren calls with her harsh, metallic “char, char, char” call seemingly adding to the intensity of the tropical sun. I inhale the moist air, rich with the scent of wet detritus in the sandy soil, which, thanks to the sudden availability of moisture and the sun’s heat, have begun to break down. The air on my skin feels soft and my body drinks the moisture in. The sun feels good on my damp feet.

View to the point at 10:30am

By mid-morning the sea is beginning to clear further out and currents are creating patterns of clean azure blue and green sediment-laden water. I watch on and off throughout the morning as the water circulates and moves creating different swirls of green on blue. I find it fascinating how dynamic the system is.

The internet comes back on long enough for a series of messages related to road conditions to be exchanged between me, my neighbors and people in town. It is possible to get to town with 4-wheel drive, but it is a long, slow process. The drive from here to town that normally takes 50 minutes now takes close to three hours. I still won’t be going anywhere soon. Why risk breaking an axle or getting stuck? And the only vehicle I have with four-wheel drive is an ATV. Thankfully it looks like Zee won’t be needing any veterinary attention.

Blue, green, yellowy beige, white…the sea was a feast of colors.

By late afternoon the clouds have cleared except for a tiny line of white fluffy cumulus sitting along the eastern horizon. The threat of more rain, worse roads and more mopping has finally passed.

Clear skies overhead and a mountain of garbage underfoot: In amongst all that brown driftwood and detritus is a maddening amount of garbage.

This evening I try to take the dogs for a walk on the beach. They are unaccustomed to the rain and have mostly remained indoors for the past three days. In the end due to injuries and perhaps a hangover from the rain only Dakini and Peanut join me. The beach is transformed. It’s been scoured by the storm surge and great swaths removed by the rivers of runoff  leaving a steep shelf of sand scored by large crevasses. Furthermore, it is riddled with the flotsam and jetsam of nature and man – wood, leaves, coconuts, pieces of cactus, pieces of partially decomposed organic matter are mixed in with all manner of plastic – plastic bottles, bottle tops, plastic electrical conduit pipes, plumbing pipe, flip flops, running shoes, children’s toys, candy wrappers, potato chip bags, grocery bags – you name it. I shake my head when find a discarded oil filter.  And there is glass – glass jars, glass bottles, broken glass. These all represent a threat to man and animal alike and need to be collected. Birds and fish alike mistake colorful pieces of plastic for food and after consuming them often die from intestinal blockages.

We certainly have our work cut out for us.