The News Arrives with a Bang


We had that rarest of Berkeley weather days yesterday. OK — not as rare as snow. But we did have this:

Early in the afternoon, thunder started to roll as a storm headed our way across San Francisco Bay. We had a series of strikes over about five to 10 minutes, each closer than the last. One was marked by a brilliant flash and maybe a three-second pause before a big, house-shaking peal of thunder. I went to look out one of the front windows — to see if I could see the next bolt. In a couple of minutes, it came: a brilliant streak just to the northwest of the house accompanied by a simultaneous ear-splitting crash. The lights went out for a few seconds, then came right back on. I didn’t see exactly where the bolt hit or if it had hit, and was preoccupied with checking out a circuit-breaker that had tripped when the power failed. I figured the lightning had struck a school building that’s about 200 yards from us. I was expecting to hear sirens.

Maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes later, a fire truck rolled slowly up the street in the rain. I went out to take a look, and the first thing I noticed was that a big redwood up at the next corner, a full, beautifully symmetrical tree that was 80 feet or more tall, wasn’t there. My one thought going up the street was a hope that the tree hadn’t come down on the adjacent home and that the guy who lives there was OK. He was, emerging from the front door as I got up there. He said he was supposed to have an arborist come out next week to talk about thinning the tree, which had lost a couple of boughs during big windstorms over the winter. “I guess I don’t have to worry about that now,” he said.

The tree had detonated when the lightning hit it, and shreds and spears and chunks of wood and big sections of the trunk were scattered in the street and throughout nearby yards, It turned out houses a couple blocks away had been struck by debris. About a dozen homes, most in a 50-yard radius, had windows broken or wood come through the roof. Several houses, on the lots immediately north and west of where the tree stood, had more significant damage — one section of the trunk, 20 or 25 feet and weighing hundreds of pounds, had flown through the air, striking the front roof of a two-story house and fallen into the front yard. The house on the corner lot, where the tree’s owner lived, had parts of the roof smashed in and was red-tagged as uninhabitable for the time being.

And the tree itself? All that remains is a 25-foot-high snag that comes to a jagged point reaching up over the adjacent homes and foliage. Neighbors, gawkers and curiosity seekers have all been out picking up bits of the blown-up tree (the smithereens to which the redwood was blown); I saw a woman pull up, tour the site, and walk away with what looked like a 50-pound remnant. The red-tagged home and the remains of the tree have served as a set since for every Bay Area TV news show — until 11 p.m. last night and then again this morning before dawn. In fact, when I went out this morning to check out the scene, the Channel 2 reporter asked me if I’d go on camera. No, I said — I haven’t shaved since last Friday. I was wearing what amounted to pajamas. Et cetera. I’m all for projecting a rugged, laid-back image to my public, but I thought that might be going too far.

Today: The rumor is that a crane is coming to lift a massive piece of the tree off the corner house so that the place can be cleaned up and inspected prior to having the roof rebuilt. (And as you can see from the following slide show, the rumor was true. A crew has been buy all day removing big pieces of the trunk from the house, then taking down the snag. All very impressive to watch and still a big draw for locals who heard something happened here).

Here’s a collection pictures from the street, from yesterday afternoon through this afternoon:

Road Blog: Chicago

Today, the road trip included zero time on the road. My sister and I did walk a few blocks up the street and back, though. And Eamon and Sakura arrived after their detour from Council Bluffs to Lamoni, Iowa, and Independence, Missouri. Their drive today brought them from Independence, Harry S Truman's hometown, through 100-degree temperatures in Missouri and severe thunderstorms near Bloomington, Illinois–family home of Adlai Stevenson, who failed to succeed Truman.

Thunderstorms passed through the Chicago area, too. It's an unusual enough occurrence for me, living in the mostly thunder-free Bay Area, that I went out into Ann and Dan's backyard and recorded some of the storm as it passed. The storm and recording were less than Wagnerian in its dramatic dimension, but was plenty atmospheric. Here's an MP3 snippet:


Back on the other end of this trip, the endless rainy season of 2010-11 continues in the Bay Area and Northern California. To define "endless rainy season," we refer to the National Weather Service record report from earlier today, which runs down a few locations that saw their rainiest June 4th ever. An earlier forecast discussion raised the possibility that some locations might exceed their monthly records for the entire month of June today (a surprising possibility, but not an amazing one: we don't get a lot of rain on average in June; the June record for San Francisco, recorded in 1884, is about two and a half inches. One earlier report ran down rainfall totals over the region through late Saturday morning. Noteworthy: the 2-inch-plus totals in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the 3-inch plus amounts in the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County.

It's more than I want to get into in detail at this late hour, but: water. One impression driving across the northern Rockies and Plains is how wet and green everything looks (but no, we didn't see any honest-to-goodness flooding in Montana or South Dakota) In California, you think of water supply when you see all the rain (and in the mountains, snow) we've been getting as the wet season continues. The state's daily report on its largest reservoirs shows storage is more than 110 percent of average for this date and the biggest lakes are close to capacity. In the mountains, the snowpack is still at 97 percent of its April 1 average–April 1 being the date when the snowpack is at its maximum. We're two months past that now, and the snowpack is at 343 percent of normal for the beginning of June (in a regional breakdown, the snowpack for the Northern Sierra and far northern mountains is at 559 percent of normal for this date (see California Department of Water Resources/California Data Exchange Center: Snow Water Equivalents).

Flash and Report


News of the evening: Our big Bay Area thunderstorm, which actually left a signature on the National Weather Service radar just before 6 p.m.–those orange and reddish areas, which were moving from southwest to northeast. We had lots of rumbling and banging here with a couple of close lightning strikes–within about half a mile judging by the short delay between flash and report. Later on, the area of turbulent weather, which dumped a half-inch or more of rain in less than an hour and led to urban flood advisories, moved off to the south and east. Now, we’ve got big banks of clouds moving in off the ocean, occasional showers, and occasional clear breaks that reveal a full moon (OK–technically, the moon’s at opposition and really full tomorrow at 9:29 a.m. I can’t tell the difference.)

[Update, 1:35 am. Sunday: Wow. Now hail is pounding down, and we got one big flash and a long, loud roll of thunder. The Dog is growling and barking and threatening to tear the ass off the weather.]]

[Update: 11:15 a.m. Sunday: Beautiful morning after the storm. A couple blocks south of here, PG&E is working on a transformer struck by lightning last night–apparently the flash I saw before 6 p.m. The utility had four or five trucks on the scene and maybe half a dozen guys working. A nearby resident was out complaining that the power had been out since the lightning strike and asking for reasssurances that PG&E was going to get the lights back on quickly. “Every time there’s a storm, the power goes out right here,” he said.]