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Rain diverts plane as Obama family heads for a post-presidential vacation in Palm Springs

Rain diverts plane as Obama family heads for a post-presidential vacation in Palm Springs
An Air Force plane carrying former President Obama and his family attempts to land at Palm Springs International Airport, but the aircraft was diverted to Riverside County because of severe wind and rain. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, Barack Obama —  like many of his presidential peers — finds comfort. He's birdied on manicured golf courses in Rancho Mirage and hosted leaders from China and Jordan.

So it made sense that Palm Springs would be Obama's destination for his first vacation as a private citizen after life in the White House. But like much of his last year in office, the trip hit some turbulence.

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Strong rain and winds forced the plane carrying the Obama family to keep circling over the Palm Springs International Airport before it was finally diverted to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.

The diversion was a disappointment to several dozen supporters, umbrellas in tow, who gathered along streets near the airport to catch a glimpse of Obama's arrival on an Air Force plane.

"It's the end of a truly historic presidency," said Ashley Farb, 23, a nursing student at College of the Desert, said as she stood gazing at the tarmac. "Even though he's not in office, he's still my president."

The heavy rain kept most Obama fans in their cars, and as the delay dragged on, they sometimes rolled down windows to holler, "What's going on?" to passersby. When word spread that Obama would reach the Palm Spring area hours late by motorcade, disappointed people quickly drove off.

Former President Obama and his wife, Michelle, prepare to board a flight from Maryland to California after attending President Trump's inauguration.
Former President Obama and his wife, Michelle, prepare to board a flight from Maryland to California after attending President Trump's inauguration. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

The Coachella Valley — which spans several cities, including Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indio — has become a mainstay for past presidents. Starting with Herbert Hoover, every president except Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter has visited the area either while in office or shortly after leaving it.

Gerald Ford lived in a 6,300-square-foot house situated near the golf course of the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage. It was built shortly after Ford left office in 1977, and he lived there up until his death in 2006. Gerald Ford Drive is a main east and west thoroughfare through the city.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower first came to Palm Springs in 1954. He stayed at the Smoke Tree Ranch, an enclave of cottages situated on 375 acres of desert. He later settled down in Indian Wells and the Eisenhower Medical Center is a major hospital in the area.

Among the most famous of locations for past presidents to visit is the Sunnylands resort, a 200-acre desert estate, with lush golf course and pristine country clubs. It's hosted several presidents: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and, informally, has been referred to as the Western White House.

In 2013, Obama hosted China President Xi Jinping for a bilateral meeting at Sunnylands. A year later he used Sunnylands as the backdrop for a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, an important Middle Eastern ally.

"We're grateful and just flat-out flattered that President Obama has chosen to spend time in the area," said Rancho Mirage Mayor Ted Weill. "We hope he makes this a regular visit in his post-presidency. …This is the place for ex-presidents."

Indeed, some locals have speculated that the Obamas might purchase a home here. While they plan to make Washington their main residence for the next two years as their youngest daughter, Sasha, finishes high school, the Obamas have regularly stayed at the Thunderbird Estates home of interior designer Michael Smith and James Costos, who served as ambassador to Spain under the Obama administration.

On Friday, as rain pounded the area, volunteers set up tents along a downtown street where the Tour de Palm Springs bike ride was set to be held this weekend.

"I always respect the office," said volunteer Cheryl Guess, 60, who has lived in the Coachella Valley since 1998 and is a Republican. "I might not always agree with Obama, but I respect the office and I'm glad he can come here at get some rest."

Fellow volunteer Nancy Liebman, who travels to Palm Springs each winter from Missouri, was thrilled Obama was arriving. On Friday afternoon, she looked toward the darkening sky. Hours later, the flight would be diverted.

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"It's terrible all this rain — it never rains," she said. "Perhaps it's Mother Nature just crying that his time as president has ended."

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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