It seemed incomprehensible that Santa Ana winds whipped through the canyons and once again turned parched hillsides into conflagrations. I was sitting in the path of a Hurricane Norbert, and rain fell from the sky in buckets.
Norbert had his origins off the southern coast of Mexico as a loosely formed tropical depression, and slowly grew as it ambled toward the coast of Baja at a leisurely 7 to 10 knots. To the great surprise of those who predict the course and strength of these storms, Norbert went from a Category 1 to a 4 on the Safir-Simpson scale. NOAA called it a very dangerous storm with sustained winds of 135 miles per hour with higher gusts.
Steve and I had driven south on a resupply trip, as we like to call them. Boat parts, shower mats, curtain rods, special foods, DVDs, books, a case of wine, and meds for a friend filled the Hummer as she made her way down Baja 1. When we left, there was a possibility that the storm would veer westward and spin down in the cooler waters of the Pacific.
For Steve, the trip was a quick turn-around. We had scheduled a fundraiser for Cheryl Kinsman at our home Saturday afternoon, and he needed to return. With another quick look at the weather, we kissed goodbye. He told me to be safe, that he loved me (always good to get that last “love” piece in the conversation), and that he’d pick me up Tuesday at LAX.
Dark clouds began to obscure the sky late that afternoon, but Norbert was moving slowly, already downgraded to a Category 3 — winds sustained at 115 mph. We had finished all preparations. I had enough water for at least a month, ample canned and dried foods, flashlights, extra batteries, a satellite phone fully charged, as well as a marine VHF radio and a car filled with gas (thank you, Steve). The front patio was closed off with plywood and all furniture had been moved inside.
Still, Norbert lingered, his long spiral arms spinning above the water, his well-defined eye staring into and out of his center.
Saturday morning, my neighbors Al and Barbara Jordan planned a “Bloody Mary Hurricane Breakfast.” Val (of Laguna history — Iverson’s 76 station at the north end of town — of course no longer there) and her husband, Barry Wilkerson, showed up on their quad. Next-door neighbor Jeanne and I drove the one long block to ensure we wouldn’t get drenched on our return.
The storm was predicted to come ashore at around 1 p.m. It would hit the Pacific coastline first and then have to cross the Sierra Gigantica. While still a Category 2 storm, the factors of coming from the west and moving over the land mass would further reduce Norbert’s punch.
We sat in Bab’s kitchen sharing storm stories and watching the sky grow darker. Al’s boat mechanic was in the garage working on some bearings. Barry pulled out a photo of the 314-pound tuna he had just caught on a fishing trip in Puerto Vallarta. It was a normal morning — except for the unspoken nervousness of what was to come.
It started to pour. Not just drops, but buckets. The courtyard quickly filled with water from the first squall line as we sat down to a breakfast of fried/poached eggs, tortillas, beans and melon.
We ate, cleared the table, and with a short break in the rain, all the guests headed for their respective homes. I had planned to finish a book and — if I had power — watch a movie between running in and out to check on the house and the storm.
The winds picked up around 2 p.m. and blew steady until the next morning. I would guess the steady blow around 50 mph with higher gusts. Certainly not what was forecast, oddly disappointing, while simultaneously being a great relief. We kept power, although the water was cut (common in storms at our end of town), and so I was able to send Steve photographs and e-mail blow-by-blow stories of the storm.
Around 3 a.m. the seas had gone totally wild. Waves built and crashed on the outside sandbar and everywhere the water looked angry. The storm surge mixed with a high tide pushed the water over my patio, depositing ripped cactus arms, sea stones and dead fish tangled with broken branches and bits of trash.
The road into our ’hood was again given back to the arroyo as water from the mountains raced toward the sea.
Earlier, a young Mexican had driven onto the compacted dirt as it began to flash. The road gave way under his car and tumbled it on its side. He opened the door and was washed into the churning river. Friends tried to throw him a line, but he was unable to catch it and was sent into the storm. Tuesday, the police force combed the beach for his body, but as yet, no trace of him has been found.
Storms come and storms go. This one was gentle, by standards — no great damage to the city, but the loss of even one life is a tragedy.
Here, the mountains burn, and occasionally the earth rolls. We are not so almighty powerful as we would like to believe. Storms on the outside tend to echo what happens on the inside. We find our fears, we stare them down, and then we clean up afterward.
CATHARINE COOPER loves wild places and weather. She can be reached at email@example.com