Ain’t No Sunshine

With year-round blue skies in Palm Springs, treacherous weather catches residents and visitors by surprise and leaves vivid memories

Sheila Grattan Hotels & Resorts, Real Estate

Palm Springs 75th Anniversary logoIn a wry sign from above and beyond, the City of Palm Springs was baptized by the bucketful the year it was born. It was 1938, the year of incorporation, when the rain fell for days. Tahquitz Creek overflowed, and downtown Palm Springs was flooded, cutting off access to and from the newborn city. Tourists were trapped for a week.

In Palm Springs, when it comes to manipulating natural phenomena, the looming presence of the Tahquitz witch was bound to elbow Mother Nature. The witch is the Cahuilla Indians’ powerful mythical spirit who rises from the canyon on sunny mornings and overcast days astride her equally shadowy broom to dominate the local weather franchise.

As Bette Davis said, “It is going to be a bumpy ride.”

Because the Tahquitz witch never holds back, the surprises and penalties of paradise in a natural flood plain keep the residents from succumbing to arrogance or boredom; she thoughtfully mixes it up with floods, fire, earthquakes, wind, sand storms, heat, snow, and occasional pestilence.

Forecasters here who gain the public trust over decades are no less than weather rock stars with devoted followers — party planners, golfers, parade and other special event organizers, public safety and school officials, and visitors, including celebrities.

Two of the most popular weather stars guiding residents through decades of extremes are meteorologist Carl Garczynski, who continues to consult with major east Coachella Valley farmers, and Mike Meenan, the longtime Golden Mike Award-winning radio reporter now living in the Bay Area.

The San Jacinto Mountains always made it difficult to forecast which rain clouds would bank at the top and which ones would push over. After earning a degree in meteorology from San Jose State University, Garczynski moved to the desert in 1966 to work for the National Weather Service. He began weather forecasting on local radio stations.

Pronunciation was often mangled at first, but Garczynski soon became a household name. He had an uncanny ability to read the fickle rain clouds, and soon became an essential source for farming, tourism, recreation, and public safety officials. Many golfers checked the Garczynski forecast before booking a round.

Southern California Edison, noted for monthly charges that sometimes surpass mortgage payments, decided it could reach an adverse public by hiring Garczynski for a series of humorous radio spots promoting evaporative coolers. Garczynski, not wanting to risk his professional standing, turned down the opportunity. Not even Jack McFadden, the regional manager, could talk him into it.

Garczynski soon got a call from someone who said he was the actor-comedian George Burns. The weatherman let the caller know he considered him an imposter. “Who is this, really?” Garczynski asked. The caller answered, “Carl. This is God. I want you to do those commercials with me.”

The real Burns, who starred as “God” with John Denver in the 1977 film comedy Oh, God, had been listening to Garczynski for years from his Palm Springs vacation home on Patencio Road. Garczynski couldn’t turn down the deity. The public loved the radio spots, which did wonders for the local evaporative cooler business.

One day Burns advised Garczynski, “You know, you should think about changing your name to Smith.” Garczynski shot back, “Who would want to be called Smith Garczynski?” Burns parried, “Who writes your copy?”

Garczynski remembers the warm rains in the late 1970s known as El Niño and La Niña that came from South America and the Gulf of Mexico. One storm lasted eight days.

A weather event remembered by Garczynski and everyone who lived here was the day it snowed in Palm Springs, leaving four to six inches on the ground. It was Jan. 31, 1978. Locals made snowmen and brought out their cameras. Judy Sumich, the popular city clerk who served Palm Springs for 40 years, snapped a prize photo of her yard. Everything is in black-and-white except for one orange on her tree.

David Foster, then CEO of Colgate Palmolive Co., was sponsoring the company’s second Triple Crown Tournament in Rancho Mirage, and the players were staying at the Spa Hotel, where Foster, a Great Britain native and World War II hero, had built an old English pub for entertaining guests of his other golf outing, the Colgate Dinah Shore tournament.

With no golf possible, Foster invited all the LPGA players to an afternoon at the pub. The next day, tournament director Gene McCauliff delayed play again, explaining that the grass had to defrost before anyone stepped on it, or else brown footprints would be visible for the entire season. The delay until late morning was a welcome change for the players, who spent a wintery afternoon hoisting a few in Foster’s exclusive Spa Hotel pub.

Mike Meenan, like Garczynski, was a trusted voice in Palm Springs. Winner of a boatload of coveted Golden Mike Awards from the Radio and Television News Society of Southern California, the Princeton grad was a desert presence from 1973 until 2000, reporting for 23 years for KCMJ, KDES, and finally KPSI.

Floods come to mind when Meenan, sitting on higher ground, remembers Palm Springs weather anomalies. There was the 1976 tropical storm, Kathleen, which caused flooding and mud damage throughout the valley; a 1977 storm caused by tropical storm Doreen; and a 1979 storm that toppled trees, caused mud slides, and swept away motorists who ventured into treacherous but benign-appearing street water.

“These three storms resulted in millions of dollars worth of flood control work,” Meenan recalls. “Then-Congressman Al McCandless worked to get federal money for the valley. Every time we had a storm in those days, Indian Canyon [Drive] would be filled with mud from Whitewater channel, and we’d have to drive miles out of our way to get around the valley.”

Lightning often accompanied the big storms, burning palm trees that would topple a few days later and popping heavenly flashes of light, illuminating entire greenbelts and sparking foothill fires.

Any fire fanned by desert winds challenges firefighters. One of the biggest fires in the city’s history took place in 1980. The Dry Falls Fire, as it was named, burned below Mount San Jacinto from Las Palmas in the center of town to Andreas Canyon in the south. Smoke inhibited daytime visibility. Firefighters came from all over the country to help. When it was extinguished after several days, Las Casuelas Terraza restaurant spearheaded a huge barbecue to honor and thank the firefighters before they returned home.

Meenan also remembers a June 1975 windstorm that blew 85 miles per hour across Interstate 10. Drivers abandoned their cars, which were buried up to their windows in sand, which blasted away their paint and heavily pitted their windshields.

Moya Henderson came to Palm Springs fresh from UCLA in 1938, the year the city was incorporated. Henderson, who was hired as an English teacher at Nellie Coffman Junior High School and later joined the Palm Springs High School faculty, remembers the 1975 sandstorm well. “I was driving and returning to town on Highway 111 at Windy Point when the wind came up and there was no visibility,” she says. “Fortunately, I knew of a way to get off to a side road and was able to get home.”

Henderson, 75, a board member of the Palm Springs Historical Society and author of several of the organization’s books and calendars, moved to Araby Cove after she married Joe Henderson, the longtime sales manager at Palm Springs Ford.

“I remember being cut off after flooding,” she recalls. “They would have to bring in the bulldozers to dig us out. One year, we lost 25 trees, many eucalyptus, we planted down slope from our home.”

Sandstorms are less problematic now that so much of Palm Springs has been developed, but in the past, they could be life-threatening because the sand sometimes prevented emergency vehicles from accessing certain areas.

Dr. Clarence Woodmanse set up a Palm Springs medical practice in 1946 to escape Rhode Island winters. He discovered the perils of house calls when the sand was blowing. He recalled in a 1977 Desert Sun interview the night a woman living on then-remote Ramon Road thought she was having a heart attack. Woodmanse saved the woman, but had to stay the night. In the morning, the doctor told the reporter, “There wasn’t an inch of paint or a piece of chrome or glass that wasn’t damaged.”

It was common for doctors of the era to ask family members to stand outside in the dark, swinging lanterns to guide them through wildly blowing sand to their home along the outskirts of downtown. During the condominium boom of the 1970s, weekenders would have to vacuum sand from their windowsills on arrival. Blowing sand lessened as the town developed to the north. Wind as a real estate issue was exacerbated in the mid-1970s when AMFAC aggressively marketed its Canyon Sands condos in “the wind-free south end.”

Three decades later, newcomers learned the wind in Palm Springs sometimes has little respect for any end of town. In January 2012, gusts reaching 80 mph toppled mature trees in Sunrise Park and new ones in Smoke Tree Commons and peeled back heavy roof tiles all over the city.

Palm Springs also has had its share of mini-tornados, called microbursts, caused by sudden, sinking air. Many homeowners have lost fences, walls, and large trees to rushes of air so localized that they affect only one property at a time.

Two memorable earthquakes also shook the city in recent years — the North Palm Springs 5.9 quake in 1986 and the Landers 7.3 event in 1992. The North Palm Springs quake caused a citywide blackout and $6 million in damage.

Desert earthquakes have a sense of humor. A prominent high school principal was in his North Palm Springs bathroom when it struck. The door jammed shut, and his wife had to remove the door to rescue him. City employees promptly showed up at city hall to activate a new emergency control room. Without electricity, city staff couldn’t find the emergency switches until someone showed up with a flashlight.

The KPSI disc jockey on duty kept thousands of residents calm until an aftershock sent him screaming out of the building. When the door automatically locked behind him, KPSI went silent. Meenan, the news director who knew the building entry code, soon drove into the parking lot, and they were back on the air within a few minutes.

In a town known for its fixation on desert summer temperatures, it is common to see oversized thermometers hanging on patio walls. Temperatures become exaggerated over time. The highest temperature officially recorded is 123 degrees in 1995 and again in July 1999. The coldest temperature recorded was 19 degrees in January 1937.

Not to be outdone by biblical stories, Palm Springs has had its share of pestilence during its 75 years as a city. Sumich, the retired city clerk, remembers a cricket siege in the late 1960s when downtown had to close down while retailers cleaned out the insects that were crawling inside their storefront windows and crunching underfoot.

Karen Vinson, a secretary of former Palm Springs Mayor Lloyd Maryanov, now lives in Arkansas, and remembers the cricket event, especially traveling in a car with her grandparents and hearing that crunching under the tires. Sumich said a UC Riverside study came out at the time explaining the cricket invasion was a once-in-millennium natural event. She also remembers a rare caterpillar confab when the slithery critters appeared by the thousands and sent Palm Springs pedestrians slipping and sliding.

By contrast, the annual migration of monarch butterflies was a visual thrill for Palm Springs residents well into the 1990s, as they migrated to Mexico from Canada and the northern United States. Paul Mediano, owner of Heads Up Hair Design and vice president of Main Street Palm Springs, saw these exquisite black, orange, and yellow butterflies come through by the thousands until recent years. Illegal logging has destroyed host trees in Mexico, drastically reducing the migration. All three countries now try to save the monarchs, and newer Palm Springs residents will someday experience this annual event.

Perhaps the Tahquitz witch will cast her magic to bring back another scarce natural happening: spring wildflowers. Imagine waves of wildflowers and monarch butterflies. Those would be fitting and priceless birthday gifts for Palm Springs.