Hot Air: Why Don’t We Take the Santa Ana Winds More Seriously?

The Santa Anas kicked up a whole lot more than dust last winter

Arborgeddon. That’s the term we learned last December when Los Angeles experienced one of the worst windstorms of the past century. The particular strain of Santa Anas was Hulk-like, threatening power lines, smashing in windows, and KO’ing street signs at 97 miles per hour. Pasadena got hit the hardest, with $20 million in damages. It was unexpectedly catastrophic. For those who sat inside a rattling house and watched 100-foot-tall trees topple over, the storms were an eye-opener. The Santa Anas could be that dangerous?

Perilous winds have always been associated with the East Coast (felled trees were one of the leading causes of death during Hurricane Sandy). For us, earthquakes, wildfires, and mud slides have been the natural disasters that get all the attention, while the Santa Anas have been portrayed as the crazy cousin who couldn’t get into the calamity club. They’ve been blamed for headaches and sore eyes and loopy behavior—and for fanning flames—but the mayhem they unleashed last year was uncharted. As streets were clogged with branches and blocks remained powerless for days, a lot of people just weren’t prepared—particularly SoCal Edison. The company’s botched response led to an investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission.

One reason people might not take the winds seriously? Predictability. “The weather service can’t tell you about earthquakes, but they can warn you about wind, which reduces fear,” says Dr. Lucy Jones, the senior science adviser for risk reduction with the U.S. Geological Survey. “You can’t stop wind—the same way you can’t stop a drunk driver on the freeway—but there’s an illusion of control.” Not for long. Climate change is shifting wind patterns all over the world. Irregular Santa Anas may become routine. Now that blows.