Paint Your Wagon was the rare Broadway flop for late desert resident Frederick Loewe and his partner Alan Jay Lerner (it lasted 289 performances), but one tune in the score paid off bigly: the lonesome-cowboy ditty “They Call the Wind Maria.” A wide range of recording artists covered it — from the Baja Marimba Band and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers to The Kingston Trio and Jim Nabors. (Clint Eastwood probably hopes you’ve forgotten his ingenue rendition in the 1969 Paramount production.)
But with all props to lyricist Lerner, a-way out here in the Coachella Valley, we have names for the winds, too. There are, for example, the “gusties,” those idiot winds (get the Bob Dylan reference?) that swoop across our landscape, selecting targets at random and cavalierly propelling poolside umbrellas and restaurant tablecloths aloft.
There are the “Warren Buffeters,” the winds that churn profit from those turbines at the edge of town — the graceful machines that attract tour buses, fill the coffers of balloon traffickers, and entice free-spending film crews drawn by their cinematic charm.
Surely you remember the “Tarantinos,” those notorious arsonists that threaten rooftops, overturn haulers in Whitewater, blanket the Coachella festival in dust, and antagonize the suits at Southern California Edison.
According to Hansjakob Seiler and Kojiro Hioki’s Cahuilla Dictionary, the ancient Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians also had a name for the winds: yaɁi.
The Coachella Valley is hardly the windiest place on Earth, but wind is the subject that nonetheless sparks lots of conversation here, with many folks asking if our winds are only growing more robust and aggressive.
But one good thing about our winds? They conveniently arrange what we know about them alphabetically.
These are the twirling teacups that measure wind speeds at airports.
April 10, 1979
T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” observed that April is the cruelest month, but on this night, 43 years ago, there was nothing poetic about the 50 mph winds that blew through the desert. (Desert Sun reporter David S. Smith found “old-timers” who called the event the “Tahquitz Twister.”) Surveying the damages is like a stroll down Palm Canyon Drive’s retail history, as Smith reported “large plate-glass windows at [J.W.] Robinson Department Store, Kreiss Imports, and The Stitching Post were blown out,” and how about 10 percent of residents were left without power.
That night’s telecast of the Academy Awards was repeatedly interrupted, leaving Hollywood-obsessed residents in the dark about Paul Jabara’s win for Best Original Song (“Last Dance” from Thank God It’s Friday), Jon Voight’s and Jane Fonda’s wins for Best Actor and Actress (for Coming Home), and Oliver Stone’s win for his original Midnight Express script.
Beaufort Wind Force Scale
Here is another way to measure wind — a fallback if no anemometer is available. The scale is named after Irish hydrographer Admiral Francis Beaufort of the British Royal Navy. In 1805, he codified wind speeds on sea and land and was later knighted for his efforts. The scale measures and categorizes speeds in both miles and knots (see “K”) and runs the gamut from calm breezes to hurricanes.
The town west of Palm Springs is right in the thick of the desert winds. Data compiled by the Commerce Department and weatherspark.com show how much or little the wind speeds have changed in the San Gorgonio Pass from 1953 to 2020. (Apparently, not much.)
California Highway Patrol
CHP says there’s more danger in overturned vehicles on Highway 62 because it is a north-south route and fewer accidents along Interstate 10 because it runs east-west.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little housewives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a glass of beer at a cocktail lounge …” Red Wind, 1938.
Why not make our winds entertaining? Especially when they come in such chic midcentury modern stylings.
“The Coachella Cough is a real thing and it should not be underestimated,” according to the Blenders Eyewear lifestyle blog (blenderseyewear.com). “Inhaling all the [wind-borne] desert dust (and whatever comes with it) at a time when your immune system is hopelessly compromised from whatever-the-hell-it-is-you’ll-be-doing-to-your-body is not a recipe for great health. In fact, many festivalgoers have reported flu-like symptoms as a result. Preventive care for the Coachella Cough includes wearing a bandana or face mask over your mouth as you move between stages and, of course, drinking a [sh**] ton of water. After the fact, herbal teas and other hot liquids have been known to soothe the cough, while superfoods like spinach, kale, garlic, turmeric, etc., can aid in recovery. And the best thing of all? Get some sleep after the festival, you animal.”
Cornett, James/Clawson, Haley
Meet senior biologist James Cornett, president of JWC Ecological Consultants in Rancho Mirage. Back when the Palm Springs Art Museum was called the Palm Springs Desert Museum, Cornett ran the shop, earning his chops as the very quotable go-to guy when it comes to local flora, fauna, and in this case, wind in the Coachella Valley. He agrees, to a point, with the 2019 assessment by Scientific American’s Chelsea Harvey that climate change has made the world’s winds faster. “I have not noticed much change in wind speed since I first moved to the Coachella Valley in 1972,” says Cornett, who experienced different wind levels living in Desert Hot Springs in the 1970s. “I lived in Desert Hot Springs, central Palm Springs in the 1980s, and the south end of Palm Springs since the early 2000s. But now we have NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] data clearly showing that average wind speed has increased throughout the American Southwest, in direct contradiction to my personal experience. That is why we, including me, should rely on legitimately collected data by scientific organizations rather than on personal experiences and recollections of individuals. The latter is often incorrect; the former rarely so.”
KESQ chief meteorologist Haley Clawson adds another consideration: “Perhaps [the reason] it may seem windier at times is our lack of rain. The drier the ground, the more sand and dust gets lofted into the air causing trouble for desert drivers.”
In his essay “A Brief History of How the Wind Makes Us Crazy” (NYRB, Aug. 13, 2019), late British author Lyall Watson cites Israeli pharmacologist Felix Sulman’s work on his country’s reactions to heavy winds. They include “migraines, allergic reactions, flushes, palpitations, irritability … and nausea.” (It’s enough to drive them meshuggah.)
“Decarbonizing the Grid”
This is the buzz expression among clean energy promoters. As U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz has pointed out, the Coachella Valley is set to become the clean energy capital of the country, with solar panels collecting our abundant sunshine, the Salton Sea generating geothermal energy (General Motors has its eyes on the buried lithium there, too), and wind turbines dotting the San Gorgonio Pass, making electricity out of thin air.
Desert Community Energy
Desert Community Energy, established in April 2020, is a local example of what is known around California as a Community Choice Aggregation program that, according to its website, “offers ratepayers a choice in electricity providers,” and whose duties and limitations are spelled out in more than a dozen pages of state-law language in Assembly Bill 117, approved and filed on Sept. 24, 2002. Aggregators and service providers are part of the plan, which is not supposed to replace Southern California Edison and is an “opt-in” program that they say will increase the amount of electricity and advance local renewable energy that is cheaper, 100 percent renewable, and carbon-free, but offered at an additional cost.
Edison, Southern California
At 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Thanksgiving in 2021, 63,844 customers in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties were “de-energized” due to Public Safety Power Shutoffs during extraordinarily high winds that exceeded safety thresholds. What is Southern California Edison doing to mitigate the effects of ravaging winds that spread small fires and force outages?
SCE spokesman Jeffrey T. Monford points to the utility’s actions that he says have already reduced some of the threat. “SCE has installed 2,500 miles of insulated conductors that keep sparks from flying, combined with segmented, more granular coverage so that, if there is an outage, it affects fewer homes,” he says, noting outages are a measure of last resort during extremely windy days when there is an elevated risk of wildfire. “Because the desert floor is relatively vacant of kindling, there is less of a chance of wildfires here than in all the other parts of SCE’s service territory.”
Edison, Speaking of
Ever wonder why so many different electricity providers in the world have Edison in their names? We did, too. Turns out Thomas Edison would forego charging companies for his patents if they agreed to put his name on their companies.
Flag Warning, Red
Sometimes, during high winds, Cal Fire (Riverside County Fire Department) issues a Red Flag Warning. What does that mean? Battalion chief Robert Clark explains: “[The warning] may be issued within 24 hours of when certain weather conditions are occurring or [if] there is a high degree of confidence these conditions will occur. These conditions are based on wind and humidity criteria or when abundant lightning is forecast over dry fuels [that] may result in the rapid spread of wildfire. Those criteria include relative humidity at
15 percent, sustained winds at 25 mph, and gusts up to 35 mph for six hours or more. [Under those conditions,] the fire agencies will staff additional equipment and personnel and may call upon the state’s Mutual Aid System to get the help needed” to combat any new fires that may occur.
Golf in the wind
Playing in windy conditions mainly comes down to this: Don’t fight it. Instead, take a smoother, more controlled swing. Remember, the harder the swing, the greater the spin. Spin will only exaggerate your mistakes, according to practical-golf.com.
“One experience I recall very distinctly,” says longtime local meteorologist Patrick Evans, “was the 2014 haboob [a giant wall of dust created from high winds rushing out of a collapsing thunderstorm]. We were watching storms to the southeast of the valley. As they approached the Salton Sea, the outflow from those storms kicked up an enormous wall of sand and dust that moved steadily across the valley. I went outside of our Thousand Palms [KESQ and KPSP] studios and watched this brown beast-like cloud swallow the sky as it moved up from southeast to northwest. The brownout that followed lasted through the next day. With summer thunderstorms to our east [becoming] more common, we’ve since seen similar events unfold, but few as dramatic as the one in 2014.”
Despite the derision heaped upon this 2008 film in which the plot’s windstorms wipe out half the Earth’s population, M. Night Shyamalan still gets to make more disappointing movies.
PHOTOGRPAH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Conditions have hardly changed since this 1975 sand storm frustrated drivers on Interstate 10.
You have many options for breaking wind news, including windy.com, windalert.com, windfinder.com, weather.com, patch.com, and thepalmspringshaboob.com. John Slama, a weather-watcher in Thousand Palms, has been running his own weather service (desertweather.com) since 2002.
Want to protect yourself against the mayhem of wind damages? Allstate tells us that “while a windstorm is a peril that is covered by many insurance policies, it’s important to understand what your specific policy does and does not cover when it comes to wind damage.”
“Cleanies” aren’t the only ones in the energy game with buzzy expressions like “decarbonizing the grid.” Those promoting fossil fuels have their own expression, calling the solar, wind, and geothermal alternatives “intermittent resources,” meaning that sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t gust, while the Salton Sea has yet to begin to providing geothermal capacity or lithium.
Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport
This growing airport in the eastern Coachella Valley town of Thermal is a popular destination for many private aircraft but notorious for the strong winds that sweep through the area. One Reddit contributor put it this way: “It is a great place to fly to but, man, those winds pick up fast. Expect bumps … A real nail-biter!”
Palm Springs International Airport can also inspire anxiety. Pilot Michael Teninty recalls one flight he took through the Banning Pass: “I turned east and climbed to 5,500 feet. Little did I know that the gentle breeze from the ocean would become a turbulent, roiling boil as the pass compressed the air flowing east and then over the hot thermals of the desert sand north of Palm Springs. I felt a sharp, very assertive bump that lifted my little aircraft … and I pushed the nose down and was lifted out of my seat, the shoulder harness keeping my body in place.”
Wind speeds can be measured in either knots or miles. A knot is equivalent to 1.5 miles.
Landscaping for the Wind
Think these winds are something new? The May 1996 issue of Palm Springs Life included useful tips to control wind damage to our homes. Correspondent Evan Morgan recommended cement and adobe as building materials, concrete roof tiles, vertical blinds that eschew dust, washable wall paint, pool skimmers that face north, and tamarisk and oleander trees. Kathleen Jurasky, the district manager for the Palm Springs Cemetery District (and the brains behind the future Pet Memorial Park Cemetery), who regularly deals with wind issues, agrees but notes that those “messy” tamarisk trees are being replaced with oleanders.
Who can forget Tom Cruise’s helicopter moves amid our wind turbines in Mission Impossible III? That shoot put a lot of money into the city’s bank accounts. Lately, more and more films and photo shoots — including a recent one for Bergdorf Goodman — are set in the wind farm. Not too long ago, filmmaker Shane Stanley spent two months “in, around, and on” the turbines, working on his production Night Train. He brought a crew of 45 people, spending 27 days at Staybridge Suites in Cathedral City and dropping “six figures” in lodging, gas, and restaurants. Vincent Levi, president and CEO of the Greater Palm Springs Film Office, notes that the pandemic slowed activity for a while, but the wind beneath our wings now brings more and more projects here.
He tried and caught the wind. As president and CEO of the wind farm Wintec, Fred Noble took advantage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiatives in the late 1970s that helped him devote his property to wind turbine development. His first few efforts in the early-to-mid 1980s were failures (they used aircraft technology until they realized maritime was sturdier). By 1985, the turbines took flight with Danish technology. Today, Noble’s farm sprawls over 900 acres with new, more efficient tech producing more energy with fewer machines, which cost $7.5 million apiece. Now 85 years old and with his son taking over the business, he still innovates and is “comfortable.” Was he offended when former President Donald Trump called his farm “ugly”? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Noble says. Is he worried about birds flying into the machines? “In all our years, we haven’t lost one protected bird, one time even offering a $10,000 reward for any dead” avian, and he never has had to pay up. Besides, every year a billion birds die flying into Windexed windows, so, hey, pick your poison.
“The only way out is through.” Every football coach who has screamed that adage in inspirational locker-room pep talks knows it, but the saying goes double if you’re a Southern California wind gust. There you are, stuck in Calimesa accumulating muscle but hemmed in by three mountain ranges, the perfect setup for a good goosing. Then a combination of high and low air pressure puts the gusts on the bus (apologies to Paul Simon) and swooshes past the mountains and through a tiny pinhole escape route: the San Gorgonio Pass. Things move fast after that.
There may be “a warm wind blowing the stars around,” as England Dan and John Ford Coley sang (“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”), but in the Coachella Valley, there’s a lot more than stars in our windy air that we are breathing — particulate matter (known as PM10) such as smog, mold spores, bacteria, dust, smoke, and airborne
“Children breathe more air pound for pound than adults and spend more time outdoors,” according to trackingcalifornia.org. “They also have rapidly growing and maturing respiratory systems [that] are susceptible to injury. Elderly individuals often have underlying heart or lung problems and less adaptive capacity than younger adults.” Longtime desert allergist Sam Weiss (now retired) has seen all of these breathtaking respiratory effects on his patients. One concern, he cites, is blowing in the wind off the Salton Sea. If you’re really concerned, check the website aqmd.gov, which publishes charts and warnings. The Air Quality Index focuses on health effects people may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern.
This describes the air pressure between two points in the atmosphere and is vital to wind speed because the greater the difference in pressure, the faster the wind flows from high to low pressure. This difference is what accelerates winds whistling through the San Gorgonio Pass.
Forecasting experts rely on this company’s proprietary AI algorithm for fire risk monitoring.
There was a time when people moving to the desert could save a few bucks by buying property north of Vista Chino in Palm Springs. Real estate agent Gary Johns with the Kaplan Group at Bennion Deville says those days are over. “I don’t know of a price differential between the windy north and the wind-free south, especially in this market, where Racquet Club Estates homes are selling in the million-dollar-plus range.” But, he adds, “this perception of the windy north keeps many buyers from even considering going north.” Johns hears that “pools in the north need extra maintenance, reading a paper outside can be impossible, and landscaping has been known to blow away. All of this once justified lower prices, but now, prices are rising everywhere exponentially.”
Another agent, James Latta, who specializes in properties in the eastern part of the valley, doesn’t see the wind as a barrier to selling, especially for those moving from chillier climes. “They tell me they’d rather shovel wind than snow.”
Steinway: A Survival Story
The Waring International Piano Competition, one of the desert’s most prestigious gala fundraisers, was off to a great start in 2010. The outdoor garden-like La Spiga restaurant in Palm Desert was beautifully decorated, the namesake of the event (the widow of Fred Waring) was being lauded by the event’s leader, Peggy Cravens, and after appetizers were served, board member and guest pianist John Bayless headed for the Steinway to play his original tribute to Marcel Proust, a sonata he named “In Search of Lost Time.” To complete the scene, Bayless’ partner placed an exquisite vase of flowers atop the Steinway concert grand that had been shipped to the desert from Los Angeles. “Suddenly, out of nowhere,” Bayless recalls, “the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees, and a wild wind swept through the garden,” tipping the vase into the precious and expensive piano. Event planners feared that the funds raised that evening would end up going toward costly repairs. Meanwhile, La Spiga’s enterprising waiters tore the tablecloths off the tables and wrapped them around chilled guests as they hurried to shelter. Miracle of miracles, it turned out that one of the pianists that evening had taken apart many a Steinway in his life, and after the pieces were reassembled, the show went on.
To explore and learn more about the local wind turbines, visit Palm Springs Windmill Tours in North Palm Springs. Guided by wind-energy maven Tom Spiglanin, tourists can get up close to see what makes these machines tick. The video presented in the lobby follows an engineer working many, many feet above the desert floor. There’s an emergency exit on the outside of the turbine that, once the engineer has climbed to the top and is tethered, can lead this brave soul to slowly drop to terra firma. Not for
How do they work? Those towering turbines consist of a set of blades, a shaft, and a nacelle. The wind spins the blades and creates kinetic energy, and a generator in the nacelle converts it to electrical energy.
If you’ve ever wondered why some turbines do not move, Spiglanin, the windmill tour guide, explains: “There are a few reasons why they don’t spin. One, not enough wind. Two, too much wind. Three, the turbine has for some reason become disconnected from the grid. Four, the turbine is being maintained and has been temporarily shut off. And then there’s ‘Uncle Buck,’ the turbine that has gone rogue.”
Up, Up, and Away!
“The Coachella Valley provides great weather for ballooning because we are often protected from storms, high winds, and fog by the mountains to the west and southwest,” says Cindy Wilkinson, co-owner with husband Steve of Fantasy Balloon Flights. “The views are spectacular and include lush golf resorts, natural deserts, and unique agricultural areas where there are date palm groves, the Salton Sea, and the polo grounds.”
The Venturi Effect
This is cited by meteorologists to show how wind speeds accelerate. In the case of the San Gorgonio Pass, the Venturi can shoot winds through the pass as fast as 40 mph.
Next time you take the Highway 111 exit off Interstate 10, pause here to pay your respects. This promontory has allowed Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians reservation to thrive over the centuries, jutting far enough into the San Gorgonio Pass to redirect and retard the wind forces that careen into our oasis. You’re welcome.
The Windy Ridge trail in Desert Hot Springs is a moderate 3.6 miles, best used from October through May. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Talk about wind power: Xerxes, king of Persia, was defeated by the Greeks in 480 BCE because the Greek leader Themistocles lured the Persian ships into the Strait of Salamis, where violent tempests destroyed their vessels. Greek Reporter notes that “Classical Athens, which gave us the foundation of Western culture, including philosophy, literature, and democratic government, bloomed after that.” Keep in mind, some 2,522 years later, that Western civilization is in danger of breathing its last.
The night of Oct. 5, 2021, a violent windstorm tore through South Palm Desert uprooting a three-story Aleppo pine. “It is unfortunate that we lost some trees during [that] storm,” says Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik. “The trees will be replaced with smaller stature trees.” (City staff worked with West Coast Arborists on the cleanup. Remarkably, there was no trace of the fallen tree only a few hours after the city was notified.)
Many windy storms occur at night, and some residents find it hard to sleep amid the chaos. The “sleep community” at tiptopsleep.com offers 17 tips on how to get to the morning light well rested. Some are obvious, like bringing pets indoors, staying away from bedroom windows, and drinking warm milk or herbal teas. Others are innovative. One suggestion: Put on your favorite music — but maybe not Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”