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
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.”
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 …