And Then the Rain Came

Thick clouds rolled over the playa late in the afternoon.
Thick clouds rolled over the playa late in the afternoon.

Well that was a kick in the teeth.

A hot but otherwise benign Thursday afternoon turned into a vicious reminder that hey, no matter how far Burning Man has come in mastering the art of event logistics, Mother Nature still makes the final call around here.

And the severe weather that walloped Black Rock City, trapping 160 people on the playa overnight, also was a reminder to take your preparations seriously. Be ready for anything, because anything can happen.

Thick black clouds rolled over Black Rock City around 4 in the afternoon, and within an hour there was severe rain, lightning, hailstones the size of quarters and flash floods that turned the commissary and Man base areas into muddy quagmires. All movement was halted, trapping the people who hadn’t headed back to Gerlach as the storm approached.

“I’ve been coming out here for 18 years,” Coyote said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this at this time of year.

“I guess it’s a new era,” he said.

The storm’s suddenness was shocking.

Heavy Equipment crew people working in the air had to scramble to shelter as the lightning began to strike. An almost-completed shade structure blew out like a cheap umbrella. Inches-deep water gathered within minutes at the Man base and commissary, the two places which had seen the most human traffic in the days since work began. And lightning struck an isolated container.

No injuries were reported as a direct result of the storm, though, and almost as soon as the weather blew in, plans were put into place to feed and shelter the stranded personnel and to accommodate the workers who had been expected to move from Gerlach to the event site earlier in the day. All passage to the event site was halted until at least noon Friday, to give the desert floor time to dry out

Rain and hail pelted the Man base (photo courtesy KJ)
Rain and hail pelted the Man base (photo courtesy KJ)

The first wave of the storm hit in the afternoon, and another squall moved through around 9 p.m., with heavy rain at the 12 Mile entrance to the Black Rock Desert. Gate personnel who had been dispatched to the site turned away anyone seeking to enter. Lighting continued throughout the night.

Dozens of DPW and other workers gathered at the Black Rock Saloon. “I was out there this morning and opened all the windows in my trailer to let a little air in,” Zach said. “Bad timing.”

Once it was clear that the immediate danger had passed, a kind of gallows humor took hold. A call went out on the radio for “that hovercraft we’ve been meaning to get.” What had been scheduled to be a day of moving campsites to the playa turned into a rain day. But still there was the feeling that time was being lost, and the people in town were itching to help.

“I just want to be able to do something,” Stinger said.

There was nothing to do but wait.

By morning, the skies were clear and there was no wind. The playa surface had turned from its usual dusty white to a hard-packed brown. If no more rain comes, the storm could make for spectacular conditions for the event, because the rain has tamped down all the loose dust that often whips into whiteouts when the big crowds are here.

At midmorning Friday, it was eerie to see the city so empty and silent during what is normally a frenetic work week. The few vehicles that had clearance to travel kicked up no plumes. It looked like the event had already happened, and that most people had already cleared out. There wasn’t any dust blowing anywhere.

And even the people who had been stranded overnight were getting back to work. “I’ve got what I need in the (living) container,” Michael Barbarino said as he walked over to one of the technology shacks. “And it was really beautiful this morning.” He had hunkered down in his work space when the storm blew in. “I saw the clouds,” he said, “and the next thing I knew it was ‘tap tap tap’ on the roof. I came out to see what was happening and there was a lot of hail.”

Coyote checked on conditions at the 12 Mile entrance during the night
Coyote checked on conditions at the 12 Mile entrance during the night

Also in the morning, DPW volunteers and staff from Spectrum Services, the event caterer, were clearing thick heavy playa mud from the floor of the big new tent that had been erected for the first time on the playa only a couple of days earlier. Ironically, most of the Spectrum staff had been stranded in Gerlach when the storm hit, and only a skeleton crew was on hand to make sandwiches for the workers still out in the desert.

Not everyone was downcast, though. Justin, aka Get It Wet, was at breakfast in full dirt-bike regalia. “I’ve been out there since 6:30,” he said. The wet desert surface makes for better traction, he explained, “and you just lower your shoulder and roll with it.” Once he heard that no work could be started until noon, his plan became simple: “I’m going back out.”

WHAT TO DO IN THE EVENT OF RAIN ON PLAYA

  • Remain where you are.
  • DO NOT DRIVE your vehicle. You will become stuck and tear up the playa surface.
  • Do not ride your bike, carry it; playa mud clogs wheels and gears in just a few feet.
  • Relax and wait until conditions change.
  • Bring an extensive first aid kit.
  • Bring a battery-powered radio and tune into BMIR, 94.5 FM for updates.

 

To see some excellent photos from the big rain yesterday, check out sfslim’s stream on Instagram. He was right in the middle of things …

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Lakes had begun to form shortly after the rain started. (Photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
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Access to the site was quickly shut down (Photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
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The mud just got worse as the afternoon wore on (photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
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Zach said outside the Black Rock Saloon that he had picked a bad time to open the windows on his trailer
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The flash flooding gouged out paths in the desert
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Piper raised her radio in the air to get better reception from the people on the playa
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Vehicle traffic was stopped to prevent damage to the desert floor
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Mike Barbarino hunkered down in his living container when the worst of the storm hit
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Domo worked to expand the internet system Friday morning after the storm
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Once the sun could do its thing, the water began to dry up
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It was odd to see the work site so quiet and dust free

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

69 thoughts on “And Then the Rain Came

  • Hugs Love to all of you working on the playa THANK YOU!!!!
    Goddess Haven is returning to the Playa this year for the 9th year.
    Starting out as one guy every year & ending up being taken in with other tribes
    or helping other campers on the playa. Everyone is welcome in this camp.
    I miss all the love, care & kindness I have felt on the playa.
    This is Crystals & Gems year on the playa Gifts from mother earth to share with all of you! Preparation are being made ready for it all Shade, rain & dust storm shelter
    Tarps from wall to wall thank you all for giving me a place to call Home.
    Sharing love with the DPW , the Rangers & all the crews that makes this such a special place!!!! Thank you. Goddess Haven Naked Gourmet

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  • There is talk of moving Burning Man to another site, a giant ranch Larry is looking at on the other side of the mountain, which would be private property rather than BLM, and accommodate more people, perhaps be open year-round. But it would be in the same corner of Nevada, and susceptible to the same kind of weather.
    Great comments, everybody.

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  • WoW! thanks for the blog update & photos. hope you saw RAINBOWS :) look up & watch the STARS tonight (August 10-13) for the PERSEIDS meteor showers. wish we were all home now PLAYA to view these spectacular events. thx 4 all your smart hard work … CU soon!

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  • PS: Driving in from LA — if anyone has an extra ticket for $300 or less, please let me know. have room for at least 1 person & may be able to arrange a ride for more than 1, or deliver forgotten items, etc. LA’Angel

    Enjoyed the 2007 Playa RAINbows … anyone remember that massive twisted truck?

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  • so much respect to all of you out in the Desert right now busting your asses…..thanks so much for getting it ready so that all of our minds can be blown!

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  • Moving the event to an more hospitable location would ruin it. The harsh conditions keep the partiers away. Plus It makes it so you have to suffer. All great spiritual awakenings happen through suffering. Remove the suffering, all you have left is a big party, which is not nearly as cool or worth it.

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  • I just love reading all the blogs about the city being built. Gotta hand it to you guys and gals building our city at this time. You all ROCK, totally. Thank you and Dusty HUGS for all your efforts on our behalf.

    I look forward to our time together this year again, 4th time going Home. Seems like I’ve had it easy in the past years on the Playa, due to good weather and lots of dust. Only one time it rained a little on us in 2008. I have been prepared each time for extreme weather conditions. Looks like this year might be a little different for me and my sweetheart, if these storms keep up into the week of our burn.

    Love, Honor and Respect Always,

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  • At ’95 we had a 200″ sunnami from Gerlach that leveled everything… platforms fell onto tents, and when it was over nothing was standing; not to mention the lightning that went round and round that year….

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  • Those of u that are waiting for things to dry out at the playa,
    There is some extra places to park around fernley.walmarts parking lot can’t
    hold everyone…there is a empty near lowes and side streets behind walmart…and of course
    near terribles casino….good luck, and thanks for supporting our community.

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