Things are drying out nicely today from the vicious storm cell that roared into Black Rock City early last night, reminding us all that Mother Nature has always been and truly remains The Man out here.
What had been a gloriously hot and clear day turned dramatic and nasty not long after sunset. One of the amazing things about being in the desert is the ability to see so much weather happening at once. So while we stood in the middle of the city in blazing sun, we could see dark clouds and jagged lighting streaks storming over Razorback.
It could have been a blessing, though. The playa floor has been extremely dusty, even at this early stage. But the water that hit us last night has tamped everything down, at least temporarily.
The Black Rock Desert could use a lot more rain like last night’s, actually (though preferably not over the last week of August). The surface of Black Rock used to be so smooth and even that land speed records were set here. But that has changed since the ‘80s.
“Some locals blame Burning Man” for the deteriorated playa conditions, said Rusty of the Transportation crew, “but I don’t. You can blame everyone who has a job and drives a car” for the effects of climate change.
The climate definitely changed when the storm hit Black Rock City. Fierce winds caused whiteout conditions, and the Gate crew at Point 1 halted vehicles trying to get onto the playa. When the rain came, a Level 1 weather alert was declared, and everyone was urged to shelter in place. Water turns the desert dust into sticky cement, and it immediately becomes impassible. Even walking is difficult, as inches-deep playa builds up on the bottom of your shoes.
Everything that wasn’t securely tied down, and some things that were, got blown around.
Out near the BLM compound, Shelly from Spectrum Services, who does the catering for work crews on the playa, was surveying the damage to the firm’s setup there.
“These are rated to withstand 100-mph winds,” she said as she held a broken pole in her hand. “This went through three-quarter-inch plywood.”
Porta-potties were knocked over everywhere, and there was standing water on the road from the highway into Black Rock City. An important shipment of electrical equipment arrived just as the storm hit, but the driver agreed to spend the night in Gerlach and make the delivery in the morning, instead.
Power went out all over the city. Lights flickered in the Commissary, but apparently they never lost power completely, because breakfast was served this morning as if nothing at all had happened last night.
At the height of the storm, the radio was chattering endlessly about water contingency plans and other emergency actions, while outside, you could hear DPW crews chanting and singing and generally having a blast. It’s Burning Man, after all.
The storm was selective even in Black Rock City. While the wind was shredding shade tents out at the Man base, sending pieces everywhere, the folks at HEAT were having an impromptu party. At one point Coyote teased Cowboy Carl on the radio, saying that any wayward souls could take shelter at his place out in Walk-In Camping. Carl was having none of it, though: “The saloon is closed,” Carl barked, “and violators will be shot on sight.”
By 11 or so, the worst was apparently over. The storm cell, while fierce, was isolated – it wasn’t like the big weather front that brought steady rain early in the week.
If nothing else, last night’s storm was a reminder that things can go south in a hurry here. Prepare for the worst, because you will likely not be disappointed.
It was also a reminder that Black Rock City can take a pretty good punch. By 9 a.m., most crews were back at work. The sun was hot, and the sweat was streaming down everyone’s face.
Overhead quote of the day: “That’s not sweat, it’s whiskey.”