The wind whips down through the mountain passes, picking up speed as it blasts its way toward the sea. It rocks cars, touching off their alarms. It upends eucalyptus trees with roots still fragile years after planting.
Grit sandblasts the face, and the humidity drops as nature's vacuum cleaner sucks moisture from the air.
They may call the wind Maria in some places (mostly in folk songs), but hereabouts they call it the Santa Ana. Many call it the "Devil Wind," and it can do strange things to folks.
Bill Puzo teaches his Cal State Fullerton students that Santa Ana winds such as those that whipped through the county at the end of February and again this week can indeed affect their behavior. It is a notion he picked up from his wife, who says the winds sure affect him .
"I discuss this as a lead-in to my world geography course," Puzo said. He has clipped newspaper stories of studies in Israel in 1969 and 1970 and in Austria five years ago on the effects of winds there.
The wind called the Santa Ana here is known as the foehn in Western Europe and the khamsin in the Middle East. Whatever the name, the winds "contain an excess of positive ions," Puzo said. "That effect, especially for younger people, tends to almost literally overcharge them with electrical energy. Their hair will have a tendency almost to stand on end. . . . They'll develop migraine headaches, nausea."
As a result of the winds, people will also excrete large amounts of serotonin, "which is associated with the nervous system," the professor said. "People become a little more, what shall I say, hyper . . . a little more tense, a little more irritable. So whatever their normal condition might be . . . they become twice as irritated, or you have problems with people fighting, etc."
Still, the fights do not seem to be serious enough to make the police roll in Orange County.
Maureen Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Police Department, said the only effect the Santa Ana winds have on police activity that she was aware of was "more false alarms" because the winds set off car alarms.
Nor does everyone working with people living on the edge believe that one good Santa Ana can push someone overboard.
Alisa Andrews, a volunteer on the Family Crisis Intervention hot line in Mission Viejo, said, "I work the line four days a week 9 to 5 and I have not come across any attempted suicides (during the most recent winds)."
Anne Saravo, a clinical psychologist with the Orange County Health Care Agency, said she didn't "know of any objective data available to tie in Santa Anas and psychiatric admissions in Orange County, though . . . it would be a good project for a graduate student."
Yet even without data, if the weather is bad enough "to constitute a daily stresser," it would affect everyone, including the mentally ill, she said. And the mentally ill "already have a greater than usual number of stressers."
Paul Blair, a psychiatrist who until March 1 taught psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine, conceded that while "none of this is hard, hard data," there "just seems to be some numerical significance to rates (throughout the world) of hospitalization and rates of criminal activity when these winds blow.
"There has been a lot said about this, but there has not been a lot that has been scientifically evaluated," he said.
In other words, the believers are working on gut feelings.
Blair, like Puzo, said the winds increase the positive ions in the air, which is most definitely not a good thing.
"Negative ions make us feel good, positive ions make us feel badly," Blair said. Add to that the fact that the Santa Ana winds "carry pollen, dust, molds, all kinds of things that cause us to become more irritable, possibly more allergic. It's a combination of factors . . . that cause difficulties for people."
Blair compares the effect of the Santa Ana on behavior to what he characterizes as "the absolute myth about the moon causing madness."
Cal State Fullerton's Puzo said that in the arid Arab countries where the khamsin blows, scarring camels and Mercedes alike, in bygone days the judges of the Islamic courts would accept the winds as a mitigating factor when sentencing criminals.
"So you commit a violent crime and instead of losing two fingers, you lose one," he said.
Puzo said that the weather has some connection to 44 medical conditions in people, "everything from mood shifts to blood pressure changes." And he cites himself as an example.
"I'm affected more by a full moon than some people are," he said. "I'm affected by a Santa Ana. . . . I have a tendency to say things I normally wouldn't say or to get more irritated or excited than I normally would. . . . I have a wife, and she's sort of the one who actually pointed this out to me, that I was not quite as easy to get along with, not my usually jovial self, during Santa Ana conditions."
The Austrian study, conducted in the land where Sigmund Freud first invited people to lie on the couch, showed that when it came to people who believed that the weather made them feel badly, it wasn't all in their minds. Four-fifths of the 3,000 people who complained of being affected by the weather had above-normal blood sedimentation rates, meaning that their red blood cells sank more quickly when their blood was put in the test tube. The study also found that 71% of the weather-sensitive were women.
Puzo said no one knows why women are more affected by radical changes in the weather. He said he thinks that his wife shares his sensitivity to weather, "but she doesn't agree."